The Past Called

Here are two seemingly disparate but deeply related statistics. Americans are reading fewer books, and usage of the term “lived experience” has steadily increased. This dichotomy directly posits a question. Are books a substitute for experience? In some ways, they are not. For example, if I said, “despite not being cheated on, I know what it feels like to get cheated on.” Many, especially those who have been cheated on, will scoff, and rightly so. We can read the dimensions and description of the Grand Canyon but still be shocked at how grand the canyon is. In other words, sometimes, experiences themselves transmit more gravity than words do (“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a variation of this theme.) However, we do know that we experience something when we read that changes us, even if that “thing” is marginal.

For this reason, we should then ask a slightly different question. How much weight should we put on emotional experiences gotten through books? For example, emotional experiences of love, pain, etc. Well, my generation should place more weight on (emotional) experiences derived through books than we currently do. Here’s why:

Firstly, we use “lived experiences” to describe things that are quite trivial and non-replicable. This is especially ironic for a generation that values “inclusivity,” because it does seem like we love exclusion in this way. In some sense, those that do, in fact, live interesting lives rich with experiences rarely use the term, and that should tell us something.

Even deeper than that is the fact that we are storytelling people. Therefore, we learn a lot about the world through stories, retellings of tragic and horrific tales. Reading and writing itself is an innovation that enables the spatial persistence of this fact. For example, we love to cite that the Gulag Archipelago brought down the Soviet Union or that Uncle Tom’s cabin influenced and changed attitudes towards slavery in the United States but fail to notice that books like that so rarely captivate our collective consciousness anymore. All textbook examples of changes that occurred from the emotional experiences gotten through books.

Finally, we should ask the question. Isn’t microdosing a better gamble? In other words, In expected value terms, do we want people to experience the negative experiences that could wreck them? Or to experience it, in a doctored way in microdoses. Neuroscience, of which I am well-read, I assure you, shows that your brain does not distinguish between the reading of a vivid experience and the actual experiencing it.

All of this is to say that it is good that we value experience more, but we should raise the status of experiences derived from reading them. The fundamental cause of this shift is hard to state, but we can infer that hyper selection into groups is a factor, and so is the replacement of reading by more vivid substitutes (see movies, video games, and Tik Tok) The solution, though, is not that tricky to postulate. Watch less, read more! And read the classics, even if it is just one! Even though my generation claims to care for generations after us, we fail to enjoy the benefits bequeathed by our progenitors as a way to experience what gripped their consciousness.


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