Reading is Not an Essential Activity

Don’t toss out your phone

Last week, the New York Times ran a comic by staff illustrator Grant Snider, who has a book out this week called I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf.  The paper accompanied the comic, titled “Stay-At-Home Reading,” with a headline, “If You Can’t Go Outside, Read: The pleasures of staying indoors and curling up with a book, at a moment when it’s practically mandatory.”


Look at this fucking comic. Pretty much everything is wrong with it. Maybe not the extolling of reading as an essential activity. It’s certainly my favorite hobby, or at least my longest-lasting. Since the crisis started, I’ve read two books in their entirety, plus most of a third that I will finish this weekend, and a few chapters of a Bill Bryson book that I’m plodding through to increase my knowledge of science trivia and facts. But that’s my usual pace, and has been for decades. I read, I’m a reader. And I’ve enjoyed reading a few books while locked in my house indefinitely. Hooray for me.

This piece of work, on the other hand, is almost pathological in the way it extols reading. “Now is the time,” it begins, “to dust off old novels.” Sure. I did dust my old novels last week, but that’s because they were dusty, not because I wanted to read them. Of the three books I’ve read, two of them were Kindle loans from the library, and the third I picked up at a neighborhood free library during one of my government-permitted dog walks. Then I sprayed Lysol on it for 20 minutes after I got it home. I haven’t gone into my attic. My attic is disgusting.

Next, Snider advises us to “toss out your phone.” Are you out of your mind? How will I play online poker? Or read Coronavirus death statistics? Or track the decline in my meager investment portfolio? My wife, a pretty steady and fervent reader, hasn’t read a single word of a book since the crisis started. Instead, before we go to sleep dreaming of disease and poverty, she looks at videos of puppies for 30 minutes. In bed. On her phone.

Snider’s cartoon is a bourgeois fantasy of a Tenure Family living in a four-story house with a chimney, surrounded by verdure and happy animals. Junior is reading graphic novels on the toilet, not jerking it to Japanese fetish porn. There is no TV, there are no video games. Even the birds are reading. Even the squirrels are reading. And squirrels, as we all know, are fucking idiots.

The Tenure Family is happily following orders to “sit by the fire and shelter in place until it’s finally safe to venture outside.” They aren’t worried about work or food or, apparently, anything. They’re just “curled up” reading Harry Potter and Barchester Towers or whatever they believe edifies them and shields them from the illiterate masses wasting their lives away not reading.

I do love reading. But I’m under no illusion that makes me special. On the other hand, the literary elite, of which I guess I’m a member, honestly believes that reading is the highest calling of all. They’re throwing their phones off the roof, even though the phone costs more than 10 hardbound books, and that’s if you get a refurbished phone. Snider’s comic is harmless, I suppose, but it also accidentally provides a window into the attitude of an entire class of people. Look at the lower right corner.


There he is, the sweaty book-delivery slave, bringing a box of entertainment so the Tenure Family can safely shelter in place by the fire until it’s safe to go outside. Well, the book-delivery slave is outside. And actually, he appears to be quite unwell. Meanwhile, little bunny foo foo sits right below him, happily reading a book in the bushes.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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