I recently read Joe Queenan's mostly good--but not, alas, astonishing--One for the Books, which has had the unfortunate result of leaving me quite depressed. I'd like to put together a review, but in the interim, I offer several thoughts.
First, books, like every other good and noble thing in our wretched civilization, are dying, Infernal electronic readers, which Queenan admirably rails against, are taking over in what remains of our now mostly illiterate culture. He's a self-confessed Luddite, but he's also only a few thousand books from his death bed, whereas I remain similarly entrenched in my opposition to technology with, fortunately, hopefully, a much larger number of books ahead of me. I cannot be certain that I shall be able to get them, either, which provides the rationalization for the otherwise indefensible rate at which I acquire books.
Second, readers are probably not any better than everyone else. I confess to looking down on those who read less than me, though, since this is most everyone, I immediately feel awful for giving into the sin of intellectual pride. I know more than I would have were I not a voracious devourer of books, but I cannot say that I am a better person for it. Moreover, in exchange, I find the world outside of books--which is to say, the real world--that much less interesting. The unfortunate result is that I then read more books, and deal ever more precariously with the vastly overrated real world.
Third, readers are impressed strongly with the sense of their own mortality. Queenan measures his life by the number of books he has read. I've not quite come to that, but I am aware that I will not be able to read everything I hope to read before I slip this mortal coil. This results in a nature that tends toward the macabre, but I do not think that it can be helped.
So I suppose what we have learned is that while it is difficult to explain why spending all one's free time reading is a productive usage of that time, there's no way that we readers would alter our habits in the slightest. It's entirely possible that we have been afflicted with some horrible disease, but as it is less harmful, surely, than drugs and alcohol, we shall be left alone for the time being. Which is precisely what we desire.