In her book Magic & Loss, Virginia Heffernan calls it “hyperlexia”: our tendency towards over-reading. Whether it is books, Tweets, Facebook posts, Medium articles, or text messages, she suggests that we are bombarded with the written word from all angles, especially with our screen-heavy lifestyles. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I know that I try to read as much as possible. I hold high opinions of my friends who manage to read a book a week, and part of me wishes that I could be as well-read as they are. However, I am curious if we can over-do it.
In How To Read a Book by Mortimer Adler & Charles Von Doren, they suggest there are different levels of reading. One starts at the cursory level, but as they read more and more, a person begins to adopt different perspectives for interpreting the text. They call the highest level of reading “syntopical”, which involves reading multiple books (sometimes across genres) at the same time to curate a specific experience. I have long aspired to read at this level, to juggle several books simultaneously in order to be completely well-versed in a topic as quickly as possible. Some days I manage to do this, but other days I am too pressed for time, distracted, or overwhelmed.
As a book-lover, the suggestion that I could ever possibly “read too much” makes me angry. Reading has brought me some of the greatest insights and joys I have ever had in life. Reading allowed me to make informed decisions and considered risks. Almost all of my skills and achievements in life can be credited to something I read. The reason that I am contemplating the idea of hyperlexia, then, has nothing to do with my love of reading. In fact, perhaps it is a direct result of it. Maybe hyperlexia in its worst form is the thoughtless consumption of text. As opposed to syntopical reading, which is focused, thoughtful, and conscious, maybe a bad case of hyperlexia has to do with a kind of compulsion. If it is written, I have to read it.
For giggles, let’s look at Powell’s Books’ annual Staff Top Fives list (link). Every year, the company asks its employees to share their top five favorite books from the year. The list is expansive, staggering, and thrilling. From one book-lover to another, you suddenly have a trusted recommendation from folks handling hundreds of books every day. I am sure someone, somewhere, has thought to themselves “I want to read every single book on this list.” One of my friends Emma found herself at Powell’s a couple years ago, and she broke down crying in the aisles. “I realized I would never get to read all the books I want to read in my lifetime,” she told me.
If you’ve ever socialized, you probably have had a book recommended to you, and you dutifully replied “I’ll put it on the list.” If you actually make this list, it is impossibly long. Like Emma, your attempt to tackle the challenge of reading every book that you should read is futile. If you had a bad case of hyperlexia, you would start at the beginning of the list and continue moving down it throughout the year, accumulating more recommendations as time progressed. The act of reading ceases to be a pleasure, and instead becomes a kind of Sisyphean torture.
The fact is, no one I know reads like this. It is silly to think that the majority of us compulsively read anything that is put in front of us, without thinking about what we are actually interested in. Every day we are curating, selecting, and trimming down our list to prioritize what is most important to us, whether our values lie in entertainment, academics, or beauty. Yes, we all have a list, but we have an innate ability to filter out the noise and focus on finding the information that we need.
MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito, in conversation with aforementioned Virginia Heffernan (link), brought up the fact that many of us are aware of what news is fake and what is not. Yes, it is annoying and progressively more difficult to fight the effects of fake news, but internet-savvy individuals have likely developed a taste for when an article is legitimate or not. This is a product of hyperlexia. One of my favorite fables is about a man who visits a sage at the top of a mountain¹. He wants to know the secrets of how to distinguish between real terracotta and fakes. So, for one month the sage wordlessly hands the man a piece of terracotta for him to touch, feel, and smell. On the last day, the man throws down the piece the sage hands to him, and yells “For an entire month, you haven’t told me anything about terracotta, and today you have the audacity to hand me a fake!” Similarly, whether we like it or not, our simple exposure to media allows us to get a lead on what is real and what is not.
There is a lot to read out there. However, I don’t think that folks read too much, because of our ability to choose how we spend our time. It is ludicrous to go to the library and start with the letter “A” and to read every book in order until you reach “Z”. We get the information we need as we need it, which is the de-facto approach to managing an online reading list. Whether you use Pocket, your Chrome bookmarks, or a little notebook, you know how to find what you are looking for when you need to read it, which is the most useful skill in navigating a sea of content.
Hyperlexia is not bad. Reading is not bad. However, perhaps to get the most out of the text in front of us, we should tailor or lists and our news feeds and constantly ask ourselves where this information is taking us, and how it affects our journey. This is simply self-reflection and an act of making conscious decisions. Today I’m reading Magic & Loss (Virginia Heffernan) and Ametora (W. David Marx). One is for my personal interest, one is for my day job. Neither are a trouble to read because I have solid reasons for reading both of these books. I even make sure I throw in serendipitous reading as often as possible to make sure I pick up subjects I would never have considered otherwise. The truth is, we will likely never have a problem reading what interests us, which makes me feel safe. I will never really read too much.
¹ Donnellan, Declan. The Actor and the Target. Theatre Communications Group, 2002.