I Went to the Moon For a Few Minutes While I Was Waiting

Painting of girl readingAt the Quaker Meeting that I go to, the practice of the Meeting is to mostly sit silently, unless someone feels moved by the spirit to speak (though sometimes I wonder just which spirit is moving them). I’m told that other meetings are conducted differently, with more talking, but that’s how ours is. At the end, after an hour or so, suddenly everyone turns around to shake one another’s hands and say “Good morning”. It took me quite a long time to figure out what magical signal they were all following, but now that I know, it seems easy enough that maybe you can figure it out for yourself.

At the end of the Meeting, several things occur, including announcements. I often find the announcements rather dull, as I almost never intend to use any of the information provided. So it’s easy for me to imagine that from a child’s point of view, one adult after another adds to the droning stream of blahblahblah.

This past Sunday, I noticed a little girl, who seemed about eight years old, sitting beside her mother and holding a book open on her lap. Children only come into the Meeting at the end, so the girl was present for the announcements, which she ignored by reading the book. I caught sight of the title: Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I’m always pleased to see a child intently reading—it makes me think that someday we may attain civilization, and I was also captivated on Sunday by the slightly rebellious idea that this little girl had found herself in a boring situation and found a way out of it again with a book.

When we’re kids, books take us places, and they need to be interesting places, or we won’t go there. So we go down a hole with Alice following a rabbit, to watch giant playing cards walking around on a chess board. Or in the amazingly popular addition to children’s books, we get on a train and go to a castle where a school teaches children to use magic. When I was in high school, some of the places books took me were colonies on Mars, an outpost on the moon, or the Earth itself a thousand years from now.

Even as adults, we still look for books that will take us to more places than we can travel to otherwise, such as an apartment house in St. Petersburg, Russia, where a man kills an old woman with an axe, or to Chicago, where a man suddenly disappears and travels through time, or to an island where a man meets people who are only a few inches tall.

Sometimes people use the word “escapism” to describe the type of reading that takes us away from where we are, and probably there’s an implication that using books this way is a limitation of what they can do. Here at my house, though, bring me escapism, bring me a library full of it, and keep a backup library standing by.

Nevertheless, I recognize that books can also take us somewhere more abstract, into worlds that consist not just of places, but of ideas. A book may take us to a state of mind where we can understand basic principles of planetary motion, or where we learn about the life of the second American president. In those cases as well, we are still being mentally taken away to some place other than where we are sitting.

The problem with all these wonderful benefits is that books take an effort to read. The physical object has to be manipulated, pages turned, or links clicked. Muscles of the eyes and hands have to move. But the real work is the mental concentration, moving through layers of symbols, interpreting them, to construct words, then sentences, and ultimately ideas. The reason a book exists is because of what happens in the mind of the reader, as if the book as a physical object isn’t there any more. When a book works, ideas have to form in our minds, often constructed of bits and pieces as we read, to be held in our memories, and then worked on and adjusted in the memory as we read farther into the book.

Does that paragraph make you feel a little exhausted? Do you want to just get a donut and go sit on the couch? That’s how many people feel about reading. And while they’re sitting on the couch, it’s easy enough to turn on the TV. It’s so much easier than reading. And of course there’s the internet, and just look at this funny video of a baby and a dog!

It does take an effort to read. Will people stop reading books? Some eight-year-old girls say no.

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