I was talking in the last couple of weeks with someone who told me he doesn’t read. Of course as a literate person he must read something, documents at work, emails, letters from the insurance company. What he was telling me, though, is that he doesn’t choose to read when it isn’t required, to read for pleasure.
For me as a writer, you might imagine, the idea of not reading is incomprehensible. My head is often full of things I’ve read. Shakespeare’s Falstaff seems like a real person to me, someone who has been alive, leering at women and getting drunk, for 400 years. In addition to characters and places, I carry around ideas I’ve gained from books. From Isaac Asimov, I have ideas about how robots should behave.
I wonder what kind of life it could be, not to read. How narrow and limited would that be? Narrow and limited, indeed, I think, though a person nowadays might cover it up some with information gained from electronic sources. Even if you don’t read for pleasure, what about books on history, nutrition, gardening, politics? How are you taking part in the world if you never read? If you are able to read and don’t, is that very much different from a person who is not able?
In contrast, I also know people who approach reading as though it is the purpose of their life. Why would someone feel this way? If you look at reading as a physical activity, it means sitting mostly immobile, sometimes growing uncomfortable, focusing the eyes on lines of small black shapes, made in turn of fine lines, often with only slight differences. The light must be right, the eyes must stay focused, and then the eyes grow tired as well.
Physically, it doesn’t sound very appealing, but that ignores the fact that the mind is involved. If you ignore the mind and focus only on the body, how much fun is baseball, or deer hunting, or mountain climbing? As with these activities, the important thing about reading is what the mind is doing.
There are many possible reasons to read: to gain information, to educate ourselves, or for spiritual inspiration, for example. How many things can the mind do? There are books for all of those things. Do you want to know about the history of railroads? About Chinese cooking? About the best places to sail a boat in the Caribbean?
I come back, though, to fiction, because that’s what I do. Haven’t humans told stories as long as we know we’ve been human? Every culture that has writing has stories that go back thousands of years, from China to Egypt. In Mesopotamia, the oldest known piece of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is over 4,000 years old. Telling stories seems to be part of what makes us human.
So when we read fiction, we are taking part in being human. Sometimes the stories are for entertainment, to distract us for a while from our hard lives. Sometimes the stories are to teach us things, or to reinforce our sense of our own culture. And sometimes the stories are to let our spirits do what spirits want to do, to expand and fly and encompass a world without limits. Reading can let us do that. Our bodies may sit immobile, holding a book or computer, moving our eyes over the detailed shapes of the letters, but those things are tools, and the tools let the spirit roar through space, or walk down a street in England a thousand years ago, or chase a spy through Berlin on a foggy day.
Before the year O, back in the BC era, the Roman politician and writer Cicero said that a room without books is like a body without a soul. Cicero knew what children know. Have you ever watched young children with books? Even the ones too young to read want to look at books, want to be read to, want to turn the pages, want to hear the story.
When I look at young children with books, and the interest they take, I almost think that human beings evolved to read books. We had to wait tens of thousands of years, however, to finally invent the books. Now the books are here. Let’s read them.