Fetishization of Reading

A notable trend, I find, must be spoken of clearly in order to keep the act of reading free from grandiose falsehood. Though many trends can be spoken of, I specifically have in mind the tendency to fetishize the act of reading. 

Grandiose indeed, the views of those who fetishize books are. I have heard some common claims by these lot, and we shall deal with each in an orderly fashion.

Firstly, when we read a book, we are not discovering some truth about the world. I have not even a slight intuition about the origins of said view; I have no knowledge about who or what originated the belief that books hold in them some sort of “truth,” as though books were akin to some sort of platonic form. 

Books are a series of meaningless symbols, of which we then project meaning onto. If I place before a racoon my books of finance, little will be said about “financial truth”. Which brings to us our second point on the subject of truth.

Books are what people intend to communicate about the world, and those people not only rely on interpretation of the world but also their own arbitrary axioms. 

When we interpret something, we are faced with an indeterminism of meaning, no series of words can be interpreted in one and only one way; we can always alter meaning by appealing to intention, context, or syntax. What one person reads from a sentence can be entirely different from what another person reads from precisely the same sentence. And that is as much the case for someone’s interpretation of the world as well. 

Moreover, we naively think our perceptions are unbiased and accurate representations of the world, but no modern psychologist would be foolish enough to support such a view. Not only do our points-of-view bias how we see things, but even the rudimentary mechanisms used for perception are themselves riddled with mistakes and biases. For example, when someone is given a task to focus on, almost all background information is suppressed from conscious attention, for that background information is unimportant and irrelevant to achieving the task. In all likelihood, without such a suppression we would seldom finish or be able to perform well the task given to us. But as a result of suppressing background information, we can miss rather obvious things within the environment. Some people will walk into poles because they are texting, others will trip over extremely large objects because their focus is mentally elsewhere. And although we might on some conscious level suppose the environmental background is important to take note of, our unconscious brain has its own say in the matter. The unconscious mind enforces its own biases on our perceptions.

Thus, to suggest that what is written in a book is a truth of any sort is synonymous to suggesting that someone’s bias is truth. We all, both authors and readers alike, rely on our ordinary perceptions to reveal to us the world as is. And we all have biases as a result. So, bias shall be found in every book ever written. Which again means, someone’s subjective interpretation of reality constitutes exactly what that reality is, if we deem books to be truth.  Which I find to be nothing short of absurd. 

But the absurdity carries on yet further. For we have not any means by which to actually obtain epistemic certainty to begin with, and so what is meant by truth is entirely uncertain. “Truth” is more appropriately described as someone’s theory about how logic applies to arbitrary semantic categories. Yet that is far from what fetishizers of books mean by truth. Rather than address the arbitrary foundations of human reason, the fetishizers of books will instead declare their favourite books to be “true” or “correct”. But we should know by now, doing that is akin to a five-year-old screaming at the top of their lungs that they are correct. Books do not bear “truth,” in the objective, metaphysical sense of the word.

Secondly, when we read a book, we are by no means altering the fundamental constitution of our biology in any meaningful sense. And so, we are by no means increasing our IQ, our intelligence, or our fluid cognition beyond some previous limit. Reading will not make doing math as easy for us as it is for computers, nor will reading turn us into billionaires or millionaires. We are not mountains of intellect towering above everyone else, nor waterfalls of genius pouring fundamental truths into the minds of others, because we read books. No, reading a book cannot achieve that.

Reading shall make of us neither a God nor genius, we are to obtain neither truth or falsehood from a book. Those grandiose claims made by the fetishsizers of books are entirely products of their own romantic imaginations.

Yet something of value is to be gained from books. A hobby so prevalent amongst our highest achievers, our brightest minds, and our most reasonable compatriots surely has utility to offer. But what value do books offer?

When we read a book, be it fiction or otherwise, we are able to develop further our own ideas on a specific topic. The laser precision in conjunction with the slowness of digestion that so commonly characterizes books grants us a greater ability to refine our thoughts. Nothing can compare to a treatise of philosophy which regards human knowledge, when we are in pursuit of understanding the limits and abilities of human reason, because not much can compare to endlessly labouring over very nuanced ideas written down on paper for us to consume at our own pace. We are granted, by such circumstances, the ability to think more deeply about what someone has said, and thus understand more rigorously their worldview. And because books more often than not deal with some specific topic, we can refine ourselves to a great degree on that specific topic.

But refinement and precision in regards to a specific topic is far from the only thing a book can do for us. It is common of minds not well read to be unable to think consistently in different domains. Consider, as example, a solipsist who has only begun to read about philosophy more thoroughly. Such a person, if to speak on matters of finance, will by accident accept realist accounts of financial theories; only because they have not read enough to see how realism and solipsism manifest in the many different academic domains of life (see: The Reach of Realism in Knowledge).

Fortunately, after reading more, these common worldviews become more obvious and easier to spot. We are, with time and dedication, able to readily identify realism inside economics, realism inside psychology, and realism inside biology; we are, with time and dedication, able to remain consistent in our philosophical frameworks across academic domains. Our financial, economic, and biological theories will account for our positions on free will and determinism, on utilitarianism and deontology, and on altruism and egoism. Put otherwise, as a result of more reading, we are better able to remain self-consistent as we dabble into other academic domains.

So, I hope I have impressed upon you some good elements of reading. There are doubtless many more positives to reading, but we must be cautious about fetishizing the act of reading. Reading cannot solve all our personal problems, yet alone a majority of the problems spread throughout the world. And as with all good things, too much can be a bad thing; and too much can lead to diminishing returns. Acutely aware a reader should be of the problem of paralysis by analysis, a problem wherein which a person fails to take action due to too much thinking. 

I leave you with this: read as much as you think necessary. But, for all the time spent in the abstract realm of ideas and words, be sure to keep planted firmly to the ground your oddly shaped feet. Reading will not make you a genius, though of course some geniuses read.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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