The Words Around Us
January 8, 2019
North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is not a destination for upscale vacations. You enter the cheap “Going out (for) business!” beach stores through the mouth of a giant shark to buy flimsy chairs, painted shells, and non-sea-worthy swimsuits. The fried seafood buffets and ice cream shops attract long lines of people hungry after a day in the sun. Mini-golf courses compete for attention – see the volcano belching smoke! Watch the animatronic pirates battle! There’s not a bookstore in sight.
During our annual week in Myrtle, I especially enjoy walking the section of beach in front of the nearby high-rise hotel. The sand there is paved with chairs, blankets, coolers, umbrellas, and bodies of every shade and shape. Plump moms in swim dresses chase toddlers while skinny teen boys hop on skim boards. Elderly locals sit and smoke, displaying their signature deep and wrinkly tans. It’s a busy place of earthly delights – hot sun, salty waves, cold drinks, flesh on parade – not a place that seems inclined toward intellectual pursuits. Yet everywhere you look, people sit and read.
For me, this silences those constant rumbles about the death of reading. You can’t fling a plastic shovel in Myrtle Beach without getting sand in somebody’s pages. And I mean their pages, not the crevices of their Kindle, because almost no one on the beach is staring at their phone or e-reader. Thick paperbacks rustle in the breeze while the tide approaches and recedes. The beach always makes me think about the inexorable changes of time, so it feels a fitting setting to consider how humanity has been reading, in some form or another, for 5000 years.
We read constantly, most of us, without any thought or effort. Yesterday was typical: I received 87 emails and read some of every single one, even if it was just the subject line or the name of the sender. One of my Facebook groups has nearly 10,000 members, editors all around the world, who post a lot, asking questions and sharing concerns. I read these posts and many of the replies. I read texts I receive. I read news articles in print and online. I read almost all day long, and then in the evening to relax, I read.
And it’s not just avid readers like me who are always reading. All those annoying people on their phones while walking, dining out, and especially driving – they’re reading. All those people with laptops in coffee shops – they’re reading away, and even if they’re writing, they’re reading. We as a society are constant readers. Road signs, nutrition information, Tweets, fast-food menu boards, fantasy football stats, TV news crawls, Reddit threads, bumper stickers. And books – fiction and non, highbrow and low. From Fifty Shades of Grey to Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, in print or as ebooks, we’re reading.
Reading started in another hot and sandy region: ancient Mesopotamia, where the very first reading involved accounting and records of temple assets. When a man by the Tigris river 5000 years ago could look at the markings on a clay tablet and know the number of sheep to expect in a payment, reading – for the first time – gave power.