You go outside, you run around, people throw dirt balls at you, you get your ass beat. But reading is socially accepted disassociation. You flip a switch and you’re not there anymore. It’s better than heroin. More effective and cheaper and legal.That's a random excerpt from an interview with Mary Karr in The Paris Review, which I found via Andrew Sullivan who excerpts a completely different section about why and how Karr prays.
People who didn’t live pre-Internet can’t grasp how devoid of ideas life in my hometown was. The only bookstores sold Bibles the size of coffee tables and dashboard Virgin Marys that glowed in the dark. I stopped in the middle of the SAT to memorize a poem, because I thought, This is a great work of art and I’ll never see it again.
Is that SAT story true? I don't know. What a vivid detail! Today, you'd only have to remember a couple key words, and you'd be able to find the poem later by Googling. And it's interesting to think about the psychology of reading. You may think it's a shame that people — including you yourself — don't read whole books the way we used to. But many people were meeting psychological needs through book reading because there was no other option, and the internet works better for the purposes people really have.
And yet, we worry that the internet is degrading us. We don't read books. We don't memorize poems. But stop and think: Why were we doing those things in the past? Why, other than: there were no alternatives? If we've chosen this internet alternative, it could be that it's better — better for our true purposes.
It's not a better way to learn, say, Russian and Chinese history, but Mary Karr's mother's true purpose was not to learn Russian and Chinese history.
Do you wonder why you spend so many hours reading on the internet, when there are so many worthy books you could be reading? Do you tell yourself you should be reading books? Consider the likelihood that what you are doing is what you should be doing. Assume it is, and put into words why it is.
As for memorizing things that, these days, can be looked up: Is there ever good reason? I say yes. It's no longer out of fear of losing something forever, but there are other reasons. What is the last poem you memorized? (Don't tell me about song lyrics. You don't have to memorize them. They just get imprinted by some magical musical process.)
ADDED: I loved Mary Karr's memoir "Liars' Club." It transformed my thinking about what a memoir could be, and I toyed with the idea of writing a memoir for many years, mostly before starting this blog. There's some line between truth and fiction in these things. No one remembers all those quotes and details. How do you get into the imaginative zone to do this well and not get dragged down by the ethics of what you are saying about real people? I thought Karr's answer was: Don't flatter yourself. Be even harder on yourself than everyone else.