The Death of the Reader, and of Democracy
People who read widely and deeply cannot be herded.
Socrates told his interlocutors that the unexamined life is not worth living. He was put to death for the sentiment. For most of history, Truth with a capital “T” was an incursion from without that men and women were variously compelled to accept and profess. It was only after the printing press made texts more widely available and Martin Luther told us that we had a positive duty to read and understand such texts—or, rather, one text in particular, through which we honed the art of interpretation—that a revolution began to take hold.
Arriving at one’s own personal grasp of the truth became a spiritual obligation. The common solitary reader was born and, with time, authors multiplied to meet such readers’ demands and to create new ones. Truths proliferated as texts, authors, and readers proliferated, and a multiplicity of religious, scientific, historical, and aesthetic truths did as well.
This textual revolution birthed, in turn, a political revolution. When the single Truth acknowledged by all was the order of the day, absolute monarchies and theocracies embodying and enforcing it were tolerable or even natural, but when religious dissenters grew sufficiently substantial in number and influence, the separation of Church and state and, later, the broader separation of Truth and state became a necessity. Two centuries of religious wars, the splintering of empires and the first quasi-democratic institutions, especially in the nations where Protestantism had gained a foothold, followed. It is no accident that the world’s first full-fledged constitutional democracy appeared in a country founded by dissenters and non-conformists.
That people do not read much anymore is, at this point, news to no one. Surveys show that leisure reading in the U.S. has hit an all-time low mark, with only 19 percent of Americans over the age of 15 having read for pleasure on any given day as of 2018, a drop from 28 percent in 2004, while the percentage of adults who read at least one novel, short story, poem, or play in the past year dropped from 57 percent in 1982 to 43 percent in 2015; the percentage of those who read not a single book in the previous year, meanwhile, nearly tripled between 1978 and 2014.
Nor is the largely audio-visual culture we now have a substitute for what has been lost. First, listening and viewing are typically more passive exercises. Solitary reading—unlike listening to audio books or watching Netflix or YouTube videos—allows us full command over the chronological dimension of the experience. We read a sentence, are struck by a word or phrase or realize we missed the point, re-read, go back a paragraph, stop to wonder, ponder and remember, forge associations, and construct meaning in our minds.
For most non-live audio-visual experiences, we can pause and rewind, but while we may put favorite Spotify tracks on repeat, we do not often replay moments in audio and video recordings, or at least not regularly and not at a fine, granular level. This means our absorption of such material is frequently more superficial than if we were reading a comparable book, lecture, or essay. Nor, when we are watching or listening, do we make a habit of stopping to follow a reference or investigate a factual assertion, such as by following a link to supporting evidence. Add in, as well, that much of the audio-visual material we consume is rapid-fire by design, aiming to stake out its claim on our shrinking attention spans. It is intended not for steeping and contemplation in solitude but for sharing, virality, mass consumption.
One of the most important consequences of this monumental phase transition from literary to audiovisual cultural is the loss of the kind of deep immersion and critical reflection required to build up a personal vantage point, an individual perspective. If, enabled by Johannes Gutenberg’s technological breakthrough, Martin Luther’s ideological innovation brought the self-possessed, truth-professing individual to the world’s stage, then the confluence of ideologies, such as Marxism and postmodernism, that deny the individual’s agency and those, such as postmodernism and deconstruction, that cast doubt on the very possibility of truth, have—compounded by the technologies of the mass-market Culture Industry—unceremoniously ushered the individual back behind the curtain.
In the individual’s place, we have what Max Weber called “status groups,” often taking the form, today, of political parties and other similar political interest groups (e.g., pro-choice or pro-life associations) or tribal identity groups usually broken out along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion. What we also have are careening herds and pile-on mobs assembled on and mediated by social networks, flashing personal and political views with all the care and refinement of logos, banners, and slogans brandished by inebriated soccer hooligans.
An essential part of how solitary reading forges our individuality is by teaching us the critical discipline of holding ourselves open to the individuality of others. Reading requires that discipline. “What most threatens reading,” the post-structuralist thinker Maurice Blanchot contended, is the reader’s “stubborn insistence upon remaining himself in the face of what he reads.” The hermeneuticist Hans-Georg Gadamer argued that we inevitably come to texts armed with our own preconceptions and prejudices, and it is never possible to let those go wholly and completely, to experience the text as a kind of noumenal Ding an sich offering us a transparent window onto the “true” design of its creator. What we do when we are reading well, however, Gadamer explained, is replacing, bit by bit as we go along, our bad preconceptions and prejudices with better ones. There may never be a transcendent meeting of the minds between us and the work’s creator, but we may still attain eye-opening glimpses into that alien subjectivity.
Such encounters transform us and mold us, over time, into individuals, taking a tabula rasa stained in the primary colors imparted with our mother’s milk and refining it into an intricate mosaic. Today, because we are reading far less than in years past, that refinement of our primary colors is simply not happening. But it is also not happening because we are forgetting how to read. Instead of letting the book serve as Kafka’s “ice axe for the frozen sea inside us,” we are expecting authors to affirm our identities and confirm the prejudices we already harbor. We are, thus, no longer open to the influx of other subjectivities.
One of the central ironies of our present age is that while our leading lights represent themselves as being, to an unprecedented extent, solicitous of otherness—the “oppressed,” the “marginalized,” the “vulnerable,” and so on—our dominant ethos, embodied to a great extent by this same class of powerful elites, is one of unprecedented narcissism.
The kind of selflessness that was our paradigmatic social idea, whatever its limitations, in past epochs—the father as stoic, self-sacrificing breadwinner and provider, putting in long hours at work and willing to give life and limb for his family, the mother as self-abnegating homemaker and caretaker, and the children as learning to do their part as dutiful dischargers of household chores—is now foreign to our nature.
We have become eternal children, unequal to the challenges of “adulting,” focused principally on ourselves and on the satisfaction of our rapidly metastasizing needs and desires and, at the same time, struggling with our mental health in a way our more ostensibly repressed, self-denying forebears never did. Lost inside our personal labyrinths, halls of cracked mirrors reflecting back to us our own brittle psyches from every possible vantage point, we make a show of talking of empathy but increasingly find ourselves in echo chambers, unable to bridge gulfs or cross political divides.
We claim to cherish environments that promote diversity and celebrate differences, but truly differing viewpoints threaten us. We crave acceptance, but what we mean is being accommodated rather than having to accommodate, never having to learn or to change, expecting society to find us wherever we are and as we are, making no demands upon us. We pay lip service to the virtue of tolerance but display obstreperous intolerance when it comes to people and ideas that challenge our orthodoxies. Confronted with all that is otherness, all that is at odds with our preconceived notions and pre-committed ideologies, all that impinges on our boundaries and extends us beyond our ever-narrowing comfort zones, we instinctively recoil. We lash out. Like toddlers or developmentally delayed teens, we plug up our ears and scream for silence, summoning hall monitors to step in when all else fails. Great books—inherently brimming with dangerous ideas that discomfit us—are prime targets of the lash-out.
People who read widely and deeply—and as a consequence, take ownership over their own convictions and arrive at their own personal truths—cannot be herded. It is, thus, only a democracy in which such people, with all their disparate preferences, can peaceably co-exist. Conversely, any society without a critical mass of reader-interpreters with their own idiosyncratic, non-conforming views cannot long abide as a democracy.
While a nation lacking all social cohesion is sure to be dysfunctional, its opposite—a nation with an overly conformist, me-too-minded populace—has no need of democratic institutions, and any that exist as relics of older ages are certain to wither away in due course. What many of us, especially in the rising generations, want is no longer a liberal democracy in which citizens with diverse preferences can pursue oft-overlapping but also divergent conceptions of the good life, but rather, a nanny-state that nurses us from cradle to grave, enforces our orthodoxies and protects us from the baddies whose harsh words will make us cry.
Though we may not recognize the tell-tale signs for what they are, the change is already happening all around us. The unraveling of the once-universally supported core value of freedom of speech and its replacement by demands for safety from the “harm” caused by words—demands for the government, big corporations, and powerful institutions to protect us from words that are hurtful and those that are supposedly factually inaccurate deviations from the Truth with a capital “T,” resurfacing in our midst once again—are hallmarks of the change.
Similarly ominous is how readily so many of us were herded during the Covid pandemic, accepting months-long lockdowns, shutdowns, and mandates without a peep or, even, with ringing endorsements of such measures and demands for more protection and for totalitarian crackdowns on the non-compliant few, including scientists, doctors, journalists and other experts who were pointing out glaring empirical flaws in the official party line but often being suppressed by social media in compliance with government directives. Though President Biden’s briefly floated plan to create a “Disinformation Governance Board,” complete with partisan hack Nina Jankowicz to serve as its czar, was a bridge too far for many, straying too close to Orwell’s Ministry of Truth to survive more than a few months, we can be sure that the same function is being carried out less openly behind the scenes, with those eager to dictate Truth biding their time and laying the groundwork to roll it all out later, once a more finished product is ready to go and when we have been more primed to accept the development.
It is no accident, in this light, that our attention is being repeatedly directed to all the purportedly dangerous sources of misinformation spreading among us. On the one hand, I have little doubt that the effort to shove official Truth down our throats has sowed much genuine distrust of all claims perpetuated under names like “science” and has birthed both perfectly legitimate and utterly loony alternative theories and alternative facts. To that extent, the idea that we are threatened by an upsurge in misinformation is likely accurate.
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On the other hand, I have just as little doubt that creating the impression that we are drowning in misinformation serves the interests of those who stand to gain from propaganda campaigns and crackdowns. Either way, in the final analysis, both Trump, with his “election-denying” acolytes and followers, and the ragtag assortment of dissenting scientists, scholars, journalists, politicos, and crackpots who are the sources of what may or may not be “misinformation” pose far less danger to us than the powerful actors and institutions who want to control our information flow and dictate Truth.
With every aspect of our lives increasingly under the surveillance and control of a few Silicon Valley monopolies, often working in close collaboration with government, as the Twitter files have reminded us (ignored though they may have been by our main actual source of disinformation, the corporate media itself), the coming decades promise a bright future for totalitarianism on a grand scale that would inspire appreciative awe from the likes of Stalin and Mao. Once the bodies and minds of kids are plugged into the metaverse, in the same way we now see zombified toddlers transfixed by smart-phones, all hope for democracy will be lost.
Passive children bottle-fed a centralized, official version of “reality” will never develop the ability to imagine alternatives, much less the need to fight for them or even vote for them. As for what alternatives are left to the rest of us, let us take counsel from the voice of God in the guise of a phantom child speaking to St. Augustine: “Take and read; take and read.”