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I Don’t Read Books Anymore

March 13th, 2024 | 4 min. read

By Patrick Miller


This post is part of a series exploring Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death chapter by chapter. You need not read the book or previous points to appreciate this one. You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here. In this essay, I will respond to Chapter 3: Typographic America.

I don’t read books anymore.

That statement leads naturally to a question: What does it mean to be American?

While that may strike you as a non-sequitur, it’s not. You see, from the colonial era until the advent of radio, America was arguably the most literate, text-based society in human history. Postman spends an entire chapter proving this point, but here’s the highlight reel:

  • “The literacy rate for men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was somewhere between 89 percent and 95 percent” compared to 40 percent in England, suggesting that “the migrants to New England came from more literate areas of England or from more literate segments of the population, or both.”
  • “From 1650 onward almost all New England towns passed laws requiring the maintenance of a ‘reading and writing’ school, the large communities being required to maintain a grammar school, as well. In all such laws, reference is made to Satan, whose evil designs, it was supposed, could be thwarted at every turn by education.”
  • Here’s an old ditty from that era:

From public schools shall general
knowledge flow,
For ’tis the people’s sacred  
right to know.

  • Here’s a quote from an early Yale president:

“Books of almost every kind, on almost every subject, are already written to our hands. Our situation in this respect is singular. As we speak the same language with the people of Great Britain, and have usually been at peace with that country; our commerce with it brings to us, regularly, not a small part of the books with which it is deluged. In every art, science, and path of literature, we obtain those, which to a great extent supply our wants”

  • Thomas Paine’s Common Sense reached a larger proportion of the American populace than most modern entertainment. A book would have to sell 43 million copies today to have the same effect.
  • Speaking of Paine, he came from an impoverished background and had no schooling. Reading and writing were not, as was the case on the continent, only for the aristocratic elites.
  • Newspapers and pamphlets were incredibly popular in America and the centerpiece of all discourse. But yet again, this was not only for elites. In 1835, French observer Alexis de Tocqueville noted,

“In America, parties do not write books to combat each other’s opinions, but pamphlets, which are circulated for a day with incredible rapidity and then expire. … The invention of firearms equalized the vassal and the noble on the field of battle; the art of printing opened the same resources to the minds of all classes; the post brought knowledge alike to the door of the cottage and to the gate of the palace.”

  • Subscription libraries filled the country and were accessible to people of every class.
  • The most popular form of entertainment was the lecture hall (lyceum), where famous authors would read their work or give speeches that largely drew their cues from the written word. Charles Dickens was as big then as Mr. Beast is today.

I could continue, but you really should go read chapter 3 of Amusing Ourselves to Death, because it underlines that once upon a time, to be an American was to be a bookish sort of person. The kind of person who looked forward to pamphlets and magazines. Whose house held books, or who at least went to libraries to find them. Who found little more entertaining than the written word—so much so that they patterned their everyday speech and thinking after it. 

Which is to say, America is dead.

The End of Typographic America

If publishing magnates like Benjamin Franklin followed the most elite and the most marginalized people in our country today, I don’t doubt he’d find a few readers in both groups. But generally, he’d discover non-readers. Or the sort of people who read three or four books a year.  

He would see that the book was dethroned, replaced by addictive, distracting, screen-based entertainment. If he spoke with us, he would hear what he previously only saw: an individual whose speech and thoughts mimic the pitter-pattering TikTokification of reality. 

This is not to say we’re stupid now. We’re just different. And we’re not American—at least, we’re not what Americans used to be.

I write this not out of patriotic zeal but out of deep lament. Our social order is fraying.

You see, I no longer read books. I am not like my forebears. To be clear, I listen to books, I read text on my phone, and I read ebooks on my Kindle. In fact, I read far more ebooks today than I read physical books ten years ago. But ten years ago, I only read physical books, and I find the discipline relaxing and easy.

These days, sitting down with text and paper is far more challenging. I hunger for screens, as does the rest of this nation. One wonders if we’ve failed to inherit the best of the past, and only kept much of the worst. 

Of course, some people do still read physical books, though, for the most part, today’s popular reading looks like Sesame Street compared to old pop culture publications like Common Sense. Our short-form media (TikTok, IG, YouTube Shorts) looks like infantile babbling compared to old short-form media like The Federalist Papers. Yes, by the end of the 19th century, there were penny dreadfuls, and since then, there has been enough trash printed on paper to fill an unimaginable number of landfills.

But still, you cannot honestly believe that Postman is wrong: modern discourse is trivial compared to the past. Indeed, he didn’t go far enough, because visual mediums have not only stultified the mind with entertainment. No, they’ve devoured the American mind with constant distraction unto addiction. 

Why I Won’t Go Back to Paper Books

 All that said, it may surprise you that I have no plans of going back to paper books. Here’s why:

  1. I don’t have space to store them.
  2. They’re not great for the environment.
  3. Finding highlights and quotes on Kindle is much easier.
  4. I do listen to/read more audiobooks and ebooks than I ever read physical books. In 2010, I probably read 20–30 physical books. Today, I read/listen to 70–100 books per year.

I don’t think the way I read—via ebooks and audiobooks—is quite the same as reading a physical book. There is something tactile about books that slows you down and makes you focus in a different way. But I don’t think it’s far off enough that I can’t reap the benefits one once enjoyed in a typographic society.

But here’s my main takeaway: whether or not you read physical books, you must combat the constant distraction of the social internet, phone screens, and entertainment if you want to develop a typographical mind capable of substantive long-form thought. If you, like me, must be online for your job, you must develop habits strong enough to keep the offline world in command. Phones down, friends. Embrace silence. Embrace boredom. Spend at least a day a week without any distracting, short-form entertainment.

Churches should become something like the great old abbeys, in whose scriptoriums monks meditated upon and copied the words of the past. We will not, of course, do the copying bit. But we can keep alive the sort of thinking such places generated. Indeed, as people of the word, who worship the word made flesh, I believe we must.

Patrick Miller

Patrick is the co-founder of Endeavor. He’s written and spoken about the intersection of theology, technology and culture for Newsweek, The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today, Christ and Pop Culture, Mere Orthodoxy, Theology in the Raw, and other notable outlets. In 2021, he launched Truth Over Tribe, a weekly cultural commentary podcast that offers longform discourse and interviews with leading Christian thinkers. He is the coauthor of Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. Additionally, Patrick co-hosts a daily devotional podcast, Ten Minute Bible Talks, and pastors at The Crossing in Columbia, Missouri. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.

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