In Defense of Reading

Our friend Trevor Algatt sent this beautiful essay out to his mailing list. We're delighted that he gave us permission to share it with all of you through our blog. Over here at Book Jawn Podcast HQ, we've been thinking a lot about balancing reading, taking action towards a better world, and reflecting on how we use the knowledge we collect from the books we read (and how to be intentional about our reading choices). Trevor's essay resonated with all those themes.

Trevor is an actor and writer and maker of music, voiceover, and Inside Acting Podcast. He's a passionate vegan, and advocate for education on climate change and food politics. He's from Philly, like the cream cheese! So he he knows what the word "jawn" means. You can sign up for his mailing list if you'd like to keep up with his weekly reflections and recommendations for books, work outs, documentaries, and more.

I remember the first time I felt shame for being a lifelong reader.

It was maybe a decade ago. I was at a retail job, doing that unwelcome thing that people who don’t know any better do: I was giving unsolicited advice. I was talking at M, an overworked and underpaid guy in customer service—and a brand new, sleep-deprived dad. After a minute or two, he came back at me:

"Oh yeah? And what book did you read that in?"

He smiled and laughed and even apologized for the quip a minute later, but I was already in it: feeling that hot butter knife of shame. The ambush of a hard truth. I'd become a human printer.

Over the years, more than a few friends and peers have suggested that maybe, Trev, you read too much. That maybe, Trev, you should maybe spend less time with reading and more time doing—acting in and on the real world, instead. Take a risk. Do something different.

Still others have suggested that—reading? DO NOT APOLOGIZE FOR THAT. Ever. It’s among the most important things you can do. Stay the course. Restless curiosity is a virtue.

They’re both right.

On the one hand, yeah, reading and learning can be a compulsive trap—an easy way to escape, distract, and procrastinate. There is, after all, a good bit of safety in the world of words, in that untapped dimension of infinite potential, where fresh, opioid ideas funnel themselves into curious, impressionable minds. Reading is one of those super easy ways to appear noble and proactive while avoiding the actual Work of living and doing and being.

On the other hand, there are entire galaxies of possibility and history and wonder living in the world of books and literature, eagerly awaiting the next breath of a question. What would a culture be without books? Without stories? They’re the sum total of human experience, ready and willing, asking for only a small degree of compassion and priority in exchange for magic.

Of course, read too much and we turn into false prophets, helplessly regurgitating mashed potatoes of noise that nobody asked for. We become transparent souls, high on itinerant knowledge, and low on real-world risk. Fascinating only to ourselves.

Read too little, and we stiffen—collapse into a single dimension, responsive only to the limited scope of our own tiny experience. Deprivation by omission.

But somewhere between the two—between escape and education—we earn the right to reflect and report.

For me, reading time is sacred time. I make a concerted effort to spend 30 minutes or more with a good (or bad) book each day. Books are more than just thesis statements, entertainment, or information. They’re living arguments, and the mechanics of persuasion can be just as powerful as the content.

Or, to put it another way: the how of a book is just as essential as the book itself. Reading is the study of a messenger as much as it is of a message. It’s education via osmosis, because it demands participation—even when rooted in procrastination.

I'd even argue that the act of reading is self-discovery: an always-open invitation to consider ourselves anew, both as individuals in a Universe governed by Law, and as a collective in a Universe of mutual design.

In short, there are worse ways to spend your morning.

Maybe I’m writing you a blind letter here. Maybe my cognitive dissonance is on flagrant display. Because, sure, there are things in my life that I’d like to be different. There are things that I'm afraid to do the hard work of changing. Believe me, I’m aware of my shortcomings, my flaws, my unsupportive habits.

But on the same note, I’ve never felt motivated by the promise of money or mansions or cars or bikini-clad harems. Food, yes. Self-mastery? Absolutely. But wealth?

It depends on how you define wealth.

I often wonder, if M had said that to me—oh yeah? and what book did you read that in?—and I hadn’t read anything, in any book…

... what would this life be like instead?