Article / Writing

In the Netflix / social media era, is it really necessary to read fiction books?

When I can settle down into a book, I feel like someone who has been running frantically for days and is finally home. Reading is one of the most fulfilling things I do, and it is easy – no transport or planning necessary. Yet after a long, exhausting day of work, I often find that I am unable to do much more than watch Youtube videos.

Globally, people spend an average of 6.5 hours per week reading, though only about half of that is for leisure, and that compares to 16.6 hours watching television, in addition to 8.9 hours on the internet or computers (its not clear if that figure includes work and study). A US-based survey of millennials found they were spending 46.2 hours per week on Netflix. Overall, in the US people across race, age, gender, and class demographics are steadily reading less and less.

There’s nothing wrong with watching a movie or zoning out on social media, but the decline in non-work reading time is concerning. Both on a societal and individual level, fiction books are uniquely important, as they provide benefits that video, gifs and memes can not.

Because adult fiction books don’t include any audio effects or visuals, readers are encouraged to create their own imagery. The text format also makes it easy to pause and reflect, to turn back a page and check something, and to question and feel curious about the events and ideas being portrayed. Books are also one of the best mediums for conveying human thought – not just ideas, but for showing us how characters think. Hence, reading involves active participation and interaction, in contrast to the passiveness of video.

Human essence – what is at the core of our being and our life – involves a complex concoction of curiosity, thought, awareness, learning, and empathy. While memes and Youtube videos can lightly spark thought, we need more profound, longer, and contemplative mediums to realise our full potential.

Fiction is one of the key ways we get at the complexity of existence and delve into the most interesting things about humanity and life. Reading helps us to appreciate life’s undercurrents, its vibrations, meanings and humanity’s most intricate and intimate details.

And thinking is pleasurable – though school and work may have conditioned us to see it as tedious work. Day dreaming, processing, and rumination – often spurred on by books – are gentle, tender forms of joy, even when the subject matter is severely sad.

Fiction books (those written to move the world rather than those written to sell quickly at airports) are part of an ongoing dialogue we have as human beings. Stories reveal the world’s shame and name and conjure writhing images of injustice.

When there is an equitable and just publishing and book distribution (which there is not – most books are published in a few countries, resulting in the creation of a very lopsided picture of the world), books can foster a climate of mutual understanding, solidarity, critical thought, countering prejudice and the imagining of a better world.

On an individual level, the benefits of reading fiction over other forms of leisure are also numerous. A mind strengthened by reading is better equipped to endure a world flooded with abusive marketing manipulation.

Reading also reduces stress, increases memory and imagination, builds vocabulary and therefore your ability to express yourself, improves focus, increases empathy as you practice imagining what it is like to be other characters, helps you sleep, gives knowledge and teaches you about other places, times, and approaches to life. It improves self discipline, consistency, decision making skills, writing skills, broadens perspectives and strengthens convictions.

In addition, there is always that odd and magical intimacy one gets with the author – a person we usually haven’t met – which helps us to appreciate that human connection is a multi-legged creature.

The dull, droning, mediocre marketing world is pushing super food trends, and any products to do with spending money and instantly improving how you are. But if there’s one super thing they don’t want you to know about, its books.

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Sculpture by Malena Valcarcel. Image source.