Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

So much writing, is anyone reading?

By Suntosh Pillay

It started innocently enough. But then again, I should have known better. My parents always said don’t go into strange places with strange people. But I couldn’t resist. Before I knew it, I was knee-deep in the online jungle called Amazon. Special offers were popping up in every corner. Books that I’ve never considered reading suddenly seemed like a life-or-death purchase. Glowing reviews (most likely from the author’s drinking bud) were convincing me that without this 400-page door-stopper my knowledge on this obscure topic will forever be inadequate. Click. Click. KA-Ching! Credit cards — the opium of the internet masses.

From the jungle to the desert, Kalahari did the same. It lured me in, flickered its Christmas specials and free delivery offers, and somehow figured out that I need (need?!) a new esoteric Robin Sharma book, curiously titled The Secret Letters of the Monk Who Sold his Ferrari.

If you ask me (you didn’t, but humour me), any sort of self-help that becomes a multimillion-dollar franchise only teaches us one thing: the path to riches is through writing. It must be. Don’t listen to what novelists tell us about how there’s no money in writing and you can’t get a bestseller in our visually-oriented, alliterate world (alliterate — you can read, but choose not to. This is even sadder than being illiterate).

There’s such a stupendous amount of writing that is out there, online, in bookshops, in libraries, everywhere. We are surrounded by words, in every nook and cranny of our existence there is someone who has something to say and is getting paid by someone else to write it out loud. I don’t use words like stupendous lightly; after all, why use big words when a diminutive one will do.

Paul Silvia, a psychologist, has tapped into this market of frantic typists, and written How to Write a Lot, a 149-page “practical, light hearted, and encouraging book” mainly aimed at researchers who are struggling to balance the publish-or-perish mandate of academic life.

Beyond this, psychological science has extended the utility of writing, and so great is this human desire for text, that even the traditional “talking cure” is morphing into the writing cure. Studies are aplenty on how expressive writing promotes emotional wellbeing and mental health. Some psychotherapists even write letters to their patients to enable the process to become more open and reflective and other sorts of warm and fuzzy things.

If you search the American Psychological Association website for resources on writing, you get about 2 600 articles. Just to be sure, the website kindly directs you to an additional 37 410 articles on their premium databases.

What would happen, I wonder, if everybody just stopped writing, and we all began seriously reading? Would we discover that everything we need to (want to?) know is out there, lost in the abyss of knowledge that is stored everywhere, yet nowhere? Would we miss the junk that’s spewed out on a daily basis by anyone with an opinion?

Will the academic world be rudely awakened to discover that every fledging hypothesis they plan on researching once they finish learning how to write by reading another book on writing, has been explored and stored in silent corners of our dark and mysterious repositories of publications?

Perhaps there is merit in the global democratisation of idea broadcasting, which has disrupted power relations in quite dramatic ways, especially Wikipedia, YouTube, and open-source journals. But the politics of content is never clean.

While we debate the Secrecy Bill, American activists are protesting a new proposed law, in which the US could force internet providers to block any website on suspicion of violating copyright or trademark legislation, or even failing to sufficiently police their users’ activities. Since most major websites have their hosts and hardware located in the US, their blacklist would hinder the internet for all of us. “Save the Internet!” read the petitions.

Could we ever live in a post-internet (no-internet) world, where the boundaries of authority and expertise are supposedly more clearly defined? Or has the exponential pace of textual output reached a point of no-return, created a world in which we cannot dare to imagine not having as many books, articles, letters, newspapers, magazines, blogs, websites, forums, journals, novels and other printed symbols of our existence?

Suntosh Pillay is a clinical psychologist who writes independently on social issues

Tags: , ,

  • Am I a writer?
  • Is psychology serving humanity?
  • Are we freeing our imagination for social good?
  • Writing about not writing
    • peter

      Judging by the lack of comments on this well presented dissertation, it seems that your question has been adequately answered. In South Africa we have by and large a population that lives by the maxim; Why read when you can watch TV?

    • J.J.

      This article was far too deep, complex and technical, (and possibly thought provoking 😮 ), I’d much rather be on Facebook, Twitter and BBM…

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      In the 19th century the educated man could have read all the main published books of the time and would therefore have a wide general knowledge. Now that is impossible – resulting in people becoming more and more specialised and losing all comman sense or vision.

      There is also a lot of very bad and propaganda type writing.

      What I would like to see on the Internet is a Wikipedia type site listing all the books that are factually inaccurate – for students, teachers and librarians to use as a tool.

      I seethe with fury every time I read a novel which is historically inaccurate – these inaccuracies perpetuate prejudices and stereotypes.

    • chris

      I whole-heartedly agree with the author. Every time I walk into Exclusives I am rendered despondent by the mass of writing and knowledge beyond my time-constrained grasp. And how to select the single best option from these many piles of books? Often it is easier not to choose and hence not to read. But that is the reality today: too much is being written, and too little is being read.

    • david saks

      Well put. I remember lovingly cutting out and filing away my first published writings. Now, I barely remember what I’ve written, having realised by now how quickly whatever appears in print is rapidly forgotten, even by those few who read it in the first place. We scribblers are small fish in an ever more vast ocean.

    • Paul Barrett

      Speaking for myself: I am selective with what I read, but still read a lot. Of course I cannot read everything. This does not bother me. Choose your authors carefully, read multiple books and/or other sources on supposedly factual topics (fiction is, of course, not subject to the same issues of validation.)

      “What would happen, I wonder, if everybody just stopped writing, and we all began seriously reading?”

      New discoveries and insights would remain obscure.
      Many fine novels currently being published would not exist.

      It would, for those of us who do read (and I think there are a lot more of us than some commentators think,) be a terrible thing.

      Yes, there are plenty of people who go for visual entertainment over reading. There are many who read badly plotted, badly written books with cardboard cut-out characters. I don’t honestly think, however, that the proportion of people who prefer reading, better written novels, or non-fiction, or quality online sources of information and entertainment, has decreased. Certainly I have yet to see coherent evidence of this claim. It strikes me very much as the common “the youth of today, they’re not as good/responsible/intelligent/interested/enlightened/etc. as we were at that age” nostalgic fallacy that usually comes from near complete ignorance of the youth of today, combined with a rose-tinted glasses view of the past.

    • Jean Wright

      I am a book-aholic, but unfortunately the cost of some books is unaffordable, so I tend to visit Charity stores or second hand bookshops. Doesn’t matter to me too much if a book is well written (in the historical novel sense) as an interesting subject leads to further fascinating reading and research… Richard Leakey’s ‘Origins Revisited’ (second hand to me) and a whole raft of others.

      Reading can broaden the mind – I find sleep impossible without reading for an hour or so….

      It is unlikely you will make much money from writing unless you are a J K Rowlings, or an educational establishment uses your text book, but it is a great occupation whtever happens to your manuscript.

    • chantelle

      I won’t put my Face on a Book, too ugly. The birds in my garden Twitter, and I’ve figured out that BBM means best bloody mate. Other than that, I do try to read as much as I possibly can, as long as it’s not an SMS. I did not study far enough to qualify to decipher the language.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      As a child from a middle class background with little pocket money, it infuriated me that the libraries of the time would not stock Enid Blyton. All my pocket money was spent on her second hand books, but they were difficult to find

    • Jean Wright

      Loved Enid Blyton too – And Richamal Crompton’s Just William. (I believe Blyton and Crompton were friends). Anyway, they understood children of that day – but would be very old fashioned now I suppose. Schools didn’t like them because the grammer was bad!

      We used to get 3s.6d booktokens, which we used as a passport to endless browsing in W.H. Smith (generally finally ‘thrown out’ by the Assistant!)

      Paul Theroux, travels, Bill Bryson and many others. A dash of Fredrick Forsyth, together with Edward Rutherford, Amy Tan – oh, and so many others.

    • Oldfox

      The ‘problem’ of there being far more published books than a specialist in his/her field could read, is not new, this was known at least during the 1980s, if not many years before that. By the 1980s it was also known that much knowledge that was sought, was available, but in another language, say French, Russian, German etc. So much of this knowledge was very underutilized.

      I find reviews on Amazon OK, if there are several for one book- one gets some kind of balanced opinion.

      For people who love reading books other than scientific/technical books, they could register on a social network for avid readers, Library Thing, which has 1.4 million members. There are of course reader reviews on this site. (

    • readme

      And here I am adding to the accelerating universe of text.

    • MLH

      It’s such a pity that many older, popular books are being replaced by more modern writings. I learnt most of my history from historical novels (not necessarily believing them word for word) and much women’s fiction of the previous century was qulity work. I reread my collection of Taylor Caldwell books recently, bought and read for the first time when I was about 18. They are full of interesting Industrial Revolution, manufacturing, steel industry, labour and wartime information where too many of modern women’s fiction relies on descriptions of PR offices. Important stuff went into those books because women were the only people who did read fiction and books were used to educate them about what was going on in the world. In talking about the books they read, women informed their men and influenced wars and peace.
      Many South Africans today believe that older books are of little use to the modern child because kids cannot relate to what’s between the covers. I didn’t relate to The Scarlet Pimpernel or Treasure Island either. The whole point of reading was to take us beyond the world we knew and broaden our perspectives.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Enid Blyton was not banned from the libraries because of her grammar but because her English was “too simple and childish” and not smart enough – and that in South Africa where English is a second language for the majority!

      And it is precisely simple English, that children can easily read, that gets them loving books!

      She is back in fashion again – and her books are now classics. My daughter is trying to find them for my grand daughter in the unabridged versions.

      A generation ago both writers and publishers took more care on both research and content. Just one example is a book I read recently about a feud in a privately owned mining house in Botswana. At the very end of the book is an authors note, which no-one is likely to read, which includes the fact that actually there are no privately owned mines in Botswana. Another book I started but did not read further was about Xhosa slaves on a Boland winefarm!

      As I said before the world really does need a Wikipedia for librarians, scholars and teachers of inaccuracies in published books.

    • Maria

      Excellent post, Suntosh! One of my professors in the US once lamented that he could not keep up with the never-ending stream of publications in his “field”, which already refers to a demarcated domain in the vast ocean of philosophical writings. The lesson? Even when one has to read selectively, it is darn difficult to keep up, especially if you are also interested in writing (as he was – he published a lot). I once had an interesting conversation with my friend Bert Olivier about this, and he told me his way of reading was to “follow the signifying chain” (Lacan) where it leads. In other words, if he comes across a promising or tantalizing reference (to a book, an article, a film) in a book, he follows that up, and in this way he is, analogously speaking, “hyperlinked” to new, horizon-expanding texts of all kinds all the time. Like Bert, I also don’t believe that one is in a position to reject a concatenation of images – whether it is a film, or those wonderfully entertaining books about the cat (Simon?) and the “church mice”, where the drawings say more than the words – in favour of written texts. Again, you have to be selective, though, even if your criteria for selection are only gradually honed down to the level of reliability. For example, The Graduate is a splendid film noir, but the more recent take on it, Rumour has It, is a soppy attempt to undo all the legitimate criticism of materialistic values in The Graduate, and re-establish them. Hence critical…

    • Nicholas

      For business reasons i tested the reading speeds of some 5000 adults over a 6 Year period during the Noughties. I did this across many parts of Southern Africa and across many socio/multi cultural subjects.

      There were some people who could cover 1000’s of words per minute with huge percentage comprehension, and there were those who could barely complete a sentence in the same time. Overall the “average” worked out to some 90 words per minute [the technical reasons for this are not germane here].

      In other words one and a half words per second or slightly less than five words in 3.3 seconds which is apparently the average length of a “movie shot”.

      Considering how much information is packed into a three second shot means that the problem of meaning for the average reder is a problem of slow reading.

      The dilemma for most adults who are now “Alliterate” [thank you] is that they were taught to read by professional slow readers. This leaves them without the skills to access information more efficiently… and since behaviour change for an adult human is an extremely hard purchase i regretfully do not share the hopeful optimism of some fellow commentators here.

      Nonetheless i am not giving up and for, again, reasons that are not germane here.. well they are totally… i have decided to publish my long awaited sequel to the Buffalo Hunters as a 96 episode ‘cell phone book on the basis that when i stand in queues, i see no one reading but i see many earphones…

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The real problem is how much propaganda, indoctrination and hate speech can be picked up.

      EVERY country has national myths to justify its past history and moralise about the superiority of its nation – they are the cause of most wars.

      Because the Americans have been the strongest power since they wiped out the locals and THEN virtuously became a democracy (i.e. the biggest tribe, who wipes out or outbreeds the other tribes, is the winner), their myths have done the most damage in recent history.

      Including the black American myths of Pan Africanism (which ignores tribalism) and their Kwanza Cult (which ignores polygamy).

      The only way to curb myths and false history is a Wikipedia type site to give out information on books, films, articles which are historically inaccurate.

      Like the film I watched “The Young Victoria” where her husband saved her life from an assassination attempt. There were 4 assassination attempts on Victoria, but her husband never stopped any of them.

    • suntosh

      Thanks for reading and the feedback everyone. Some thought-provoking feedback and critical commentary.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      According to the Black American Kwanza Cultists the West stole everything from Africa (Egypt) including medical knowledge and the Christian Trinity – which is supposedly based on the Black African Trinity of Mother, Father and Child (i.e. monogamy).