From Shakespeare to social media: are we losing the will to read?

Battle of Ideas festival 2019, Sunday 3 November, Barbican, London


In our digital age of kindles, audiobooks, iPads and Twitter, when skim-reading has become the norm, have we lost the ability to read critically? In his new book, Pen in Hand: reading, re-reading and other mysteries, the author Tim Parks argues that the simple acts of reading with a pen in hand and writing in the margins are crucial for engaging with and thinking critically about a text. Parks writes that ‘we have too much respect for the printed word, too little awareness of the power words hold over us’. Writing in The Closing of the American Mind, American philosopher Allan Bloom observed similar problems long before the dawn of the internet and social media, noting students ‘have not learned to read, nor do they have the expectation of delight or improvement from reading’. This lack of education, Bloom argued, ‘results in students seeking enlightenment wherever it is readily available, without being able to distinguish between the sublime and trash’.

How do we decide whether a book is good or bad, worth reading or a waste of time? Questions of judgement and criticism are crucial beyond the world of books – whether in politics or morality, in assessing the value of ideas, cultures, ethics. But when it comes to fiction, judgement is often seen as a dirty word. Is the contemporary failure to be honest about whether works of fiction are good or bad the consequence of academia’s turn towards relativism and non-judgementalism? Is this hampering our ability to read ‘good’ books? Or are other factors, such as the rise of social media and new technology, to blame?

Reading also allows us to develop perspective and empathy. But in today’s world of relativism and identity politics, where diversity is often valued above all else, can the universalist appeal of literature survive? Elif Shafak is Turkey’s most widely read female author, her books explore the complexities of identity and individual experience. She argues that ‘everyone’s inner journey is unique just like our fingerprints’. As a writer, she believes that literature reminds us of our ‘common humanity’. Does a good book tell us something about our shared humanity? Or open doors to new worlds, allowing us to enter times and places we would otherwise not have known?

How does a writer acquire insights that we can all relate to? What is a good reader? Shafak argues: ‘I believe that every writer should be a good reader and a good listener… A writer should not isolate himself or herself from society.’ But what of standing apart from social trends and fashions? And for readers amid today’s tumultuous events, is there anything wrong with retreating from the ‘real’ world?

In this session, award-winning novelists Elif Shafak and Tim Parks will discuss the state of reading and writing in the twenty-first century, exploring questions such as: Why does reading matter? What is the purpose of reading? Why do we need fiction? Do we read to challenge our vision of the world or to confirm it? Is reading a skill, an art, or simply a passive experience? And is it ok to get lost in a text, or should we stay alert and critical when reading fiction?

Tim Parks
novelist, essayist, travel writer and translator; author, Pen in Hand: reading, rereading and other mysteries and In Extremis

Elif Shafak
award winning novelist, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World; political commentator

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; Brexit Party MEP; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!