Will Reading Become Old Hat?


The spoken word is what separates us from being mere animals. We began developing it nearly a hundred thousand years ago, and in terms of survival, it can be credited as the single biggest reason we’ve lasted so long and been so successful.

As technology has begun to take an increasingly important part in our lives, though, the way in which we communicate has somewhat devolved.

To operate desktop computers, we mash our fingers on keypads, stare at screens, and clamp our hands around mice.

To interact with our phones and mobile devices, we hunch over, thumb the screen, and growl or shout at them in a futile attempt to get them to respond.

Throw in all the other digital interfaces we use on a daily basis, and how we communicate today looks less like highly evolved beings capable of using an extremely efficient and complex system of utterances and sounds, and more like some kind of primitive species of apes that existed a few million years ago.

Thankfully, with advances in AI and specifically natural language processing, the gap between us and technology, and the way in which we interact and communicate with it, is becoming ever smaller.

As a response to living in a mobile-first world, we’re now entering into the age of voice. What this looks like is not bashing and grunting at our devices, but searching the web by speaking to Google, buying products online by chatting with conversational interfaces, and even conversing with them as if they were one of our own.

About time, some of you might say. But not so fast: as the information, stories, apps, games, and everything else that we consume becomes increasingly verbal, there is an unintended consequence it may cause that may see us devolve in a whole other direction.

Much in the same way handwriting is now somewhat obsolete, reading — particularly in-depth reading of printed material — is also becoming a skill, art, and pastime that is slowly but surely fading into history.

Or is it?

It’s hard to say. But the growth of voice is set to be many times greater than mobile apps. And once advertisers start harnessing it, it will not only in the near future be normal to speak and listen to our devices, but voice will be so intrusive that we may soon start wishing we could go back to the romantic world of physical books and silent toasters. The scariest part of it of all, though, is that our minds may not be sharp or even clear enough to remember or care why.

Why books will never die: Reading increases your chances of survival

Reading is one of life’s greatest distractions, avoidance tactics, and general means to kill some time. Of course, reading is so great not only because it offers a way to escape the humdrum of daily existence, but because it requires us to use our brains and learn as we do it. As the following study showed, this engagement actually leads to increasing your time on this Earth so that you can read some more.

Published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, the study looked at over 3,635 people and found that reading provides nearly a two-year survival advantage. One crucial point, though, was that this advantage wasn’t the same for people who read magazines and newspapers as it was for those who read books.

Unlike short-form narratives and attention-grabbing articles, books promote the slow, immersive process the researchers call “deep reading”. Deep reading is a type of cognitive engagement that occurs when a reader is so into a book they start drawing connections across the material, relating it to their lives and the outside world, and posing questions about the content and what it means.

The study didn’t focus specifically on fiction, non-fiction, or a certain genre, and so it seems the benefits of a sharper mind and a longer life — as well as greater vocabulary, social perception, and emotional intelligence — are available to anyone who actually manages to do the increasingly difficult task of picking up and reading a good book.

The ultimate immersive experience

Once upon a time, reading was a fully immersive experience. To read anything worthwhile and get engaged in a story, you had to put everything else on hold, take the time to find somewhere quiet, and do nothing other than read — and maybe sip a cup of tea.

Today, we read from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep. Instant messages, Tweets, blog posts, news stories, advertisements, product descriptions, app instructions, directions; reading is no longer so separated from our lives as an experience in itself, but entangled in it as a means to an end, a mundane activity, a disruption, even a chore.

In this way, good books and stories have been stripped of the ritual and context that make them what they are, and what so crucially allows us to become so deeply engrossed in them so that everything else falls away. The value of this context is clear: you can listen to a book about ancient Norse mythology at the same time as weaving through traffic on your commute, drinking a latte, planning the day’s work, and listening in for the weather forecast. But get asked a question about Thor or Loki by a colleague when you arrive, and the answer is lost on you, like you never even registered it.

Purposely sit down every night for an hour in a quiet room, though, with no phone or distractions or stimuli apart from a paperback book, and you can and will recount everything there is to know about Thor, Loki, Odin, Braggi, Figa, and whoever else to whoever you meet because you were there, alongside them, playing out their adventures and crusades with complete and wholehearted conviction.