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Highlights: Reading As Counter Practice

Reading can be thought of as counter-practice, a deliberately chosen discipline that can form us in ways that run counter to the default settings of our techno-social millieu.

  • The idea of ‘technique’ suggested in Jacques Ellul’s ‘The Technological Society’. It refers, broadly, to the idea that humans are driven by the passive, pervasive force of ‘efficiency’—technical and organising methods that end up shaping our goals. Under such a force, we develop systems whereby that which cannot be quantified vanishes, or is at least treated as being of minimal importance.
  • One of the key pieces of media targeted by this philosophy is the book. It is becoming a widely-held view, one which often appears in book reviews themselves, that a great number of non-fiction books would benefit from being condensed and written as six paragraph blog posts. This brings the unstated implication that the purpose of a book is to transmit information—what Andy Matuschak refers to as transmissionism.
  • Some books should be read with the goal of knowledge transfer, this is understandable. However, viewing all books in this way distorts the practice of reading itself; one may read to sit with another’s thoughts for a period of time and attempt to see the world through another’s eyes.
  • Skimming books, and other forms of text, is a coping mechanism borne of the limitation that we cannot read everything, and indeed cannot keep close to the pace set by algorithmic feeds of content. With the rise of the internet we have increased information at the cost of judgement: all else being equal, we have less time to spend on any given piece of information. In fact, [[Reading online has a negative impact on cognition]]. Books, when read for pleasure or wisdom, may indeed serve as a counter-practice to the perpetual, aimless darting between novel content in the digital world. Indeed, we must conciously slow our reading to match the tempo of the book we are reading—consuming a book in the same way as we consume emails is only wading into ‘the shallows’ and does not promote a contemplative state of mind.

References

Sacasas, L. M. ‘Reading As Counter-Practice’. Substack newsletter. The Convivial Society (blog), 1 December 2022. https://theconvivialsociety.substack.com/p/reading-as-counter-practice.