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What is it about reading?

Updated: Oct 19, 2018

Why read fiction? Hmmm? Of all the ways to pass your short time on this planet, why stick your head in the midst of a few hundred pages of paper and read someone else's thoughts?

I was recently rhetorically asked by a friend "Maybe I am wasting my time reading? Maybe I should be doing other things?" My friend was conscious of daily time pressures, and of using the limited time we get on this earth wisely. A thinking chap. But he wanted some affirmation. I came back with a half-decent off the cuff answer but it made me think about the issue in a little more depth.

I have been told many things about getting older - that I would need less sleep, that the years would race by, that I would start to shrink, and that I would grow bored of fiction. Well the first three are true, but now, thirty five years or so after I started reading 'proper' literature I find myself as enamoured as ever of a good story, well-told.

The average human loves a story. From folk songs to anecdotes and from gossip to film and television, we love to dive deep into other peoples' lives. Now, I don't watch television. It's not that I have a strong animosity, but if asked I would say that I just find that it is too passive a pastime. You watch and you watch, and something triggers but dang, no chance to think about it because the scene has changed and another character is speaking.

Reading is different. The reader unconsciously manages the flow and pace of the story, reading slowly or more quickly depending on mood, content, interest. The reader merges personal consciousness and mental detours seamlessly with the plot of the novel, and the thoughts and emotions triggered while reading - different for each reader - become part of the individual's response to and memory of the book. It is so true, as per the quote attributed to Edmund Wilson, that:

"No two persons ever read the same book."

Novel reading does more than bounce ideas around inside the reader's brain though, more than fire off synapses, reviving and connecting thoughts and memories. It broadens our horizons. It takes us places we've never been before. You can step out for lunch from your mundane job, in your uninspiring town, open your book and be transported to Naples in the 1950s; a marketplace in Lahore; renaissance Florence; a small pre-colonial village in Nigeria; a medieval castle under siege; or further afield, to the time of dinosaurs, or into orbit around a distant planet. Paul Auster captured this perfectly when he wrote:

“Reading was my escape and my comfort, my consolation, my stimulant of choice: reading for the pure pleasure of it, for the beautiful stillness that surrounds you when you hear an author's words reverberating in your head.”

I do read non-fiction occasionally, I like context and explanation, but it cannot be dry. To keep my attention it has to weave a story, to be engaging, human and well-structured. I don't include autobiography in the non-fiction category though. An autobiography may present facts, but they are carefully chosen and presented facts, told with bias and with an attempt to create a specific impression or emotion. It's a story being told, as much as if it were fiction.

I'll be honest, I struggle with dry facts the most, which is possibly why I never got on with science - at least until Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything. To me non-fiction is a lump of chicken, a whole cooked cabbage and a boiled potato, slapped on a plate with no presentation. As a meal it offers sustenance, but that is all. Fiction is coq au vin, with dauphinoise potatoes and sautéed leeks presented on finest china, served in a panelled dining room, with candles flickering on the table, a glass of fine wine, good company, laughter, and a violinist serenading in the background.

Fiction also exercises your brain and expands your knowledge: it takes you places, into the wild mountains of Afghanistan or Tudor London; it takes you inside peoples lives, inside their heads. It connects you to the world. As James Baldwin said:

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive."

And for that reason it makes the average reader more tolerant, a better listener and a more understanding person. If someone talks at you, the temptation is to argue against them, maybe to entrench your position. If someone writes, you read, you reflect and consider, you move your position, or at least you understand. That, for me, is the joy and the benefit of reading.

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