I like to read. No, actually I love to read. I take a book with me pretty much everywhere I go. I read while I’m eating lunch, I read while walking to lunch, and I’ll be reading as I walk back. I take a book with me to the bathroom, and I read when I’m waiting in line. I tend not to be concerned about time spent waiting, because I have my book with me. I read my mail in the morning, and I read in bed before I turn out the light and go to sleep. I am guilty of reading packages and ingredient lists when nothing else is around.
I keep telling myself I don’t have that many books, but there are 22 boxes of them still waiting to be unpacked after our recent move. I’ve placed a higher priority on getting the kitchen and computers in working order, but that hasn’t stopped me from opening a few boxes and pulling out a book or two to re-read. I say “re-read” because I can’t think of more than 2 or 3 new books in my collection that I have never read. I’ve read most of my books multiple times. My wife loves to tease me when she sees me re-reading a book, asking if it’s different this time. I’ve begun to ignore her. It’s a husband thing. But I like re-reading books. It’s like visiting a good friend and telling stories about experiences you have both shared. I also like listening to music multiple times and watching movies over again. Just because I know the ending doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the experience again. And sometimes, when I notice something I’d missed before, it is different this time around.
But not everyone feels this way. At one family reunion, one of my wife’s cousins made the statement, “As far as I’m concerned, all fiction is a waste of time.” My wife and I stood there in slack-jawed wonder, stunned at these words. By his own admittance, this cousin has not read a book since he graduated from college some 20 years ago, and he believed he wasn’t missing a thing. Since my wife and I both love to read, we couldn’t understand this attitude. But we’ve noticed that it’s not all that uncommon for even moderately educated people to consider the phrase “reading for pleasure” an oxymoron. So of what use is reading?
Well, for one thing, books make a huge difference in our culture and our daily lives. Edward Bulwer-Lytton famously wrote, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” When you consider all the things that have happened in this world because of the influence of a few books, it’s obvious that the printed word has done more to change history and society than warfare — and quite a few books have agitated people to warfare. Let me list a few books: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Veda, and the Tao Te Ching. Through the influence of holy writ, billions of people have found inspiration, guidance, and enlightenment. Don’t believe me? How about Das Kapital, The Communist Manifesto, and Mein Kampf? These three works alone have instigated the death of over 100 million people in the 20th century. They certainly changed history and society for those who died. But these books, whether holy writings or political manifestos, are usually considered non-fiction. Of what use, then, is fiction — or is it, as the cousin put it, just a waste of time?
I like fantasy novels all right, and I have a bunch of Tom Clancy paperbacks in my bookcase, but my favorite genre has always been science fiction. It is an often-maligned genre precisely because detractors say it is unrealistic. After all, it’s not very likely that we’ll see human beings invent faster-than-light space travel in our lifetimes, and all these made-up aliens probably have nothing to do with real extraterrestrial life forms — if indeed there are any in existence. But science fiction is useful because it often teaches the reader about scientific concepts in a way that is easy to digest. I enjoy seeing how authors can take a concept and spin a plot or the setting of a novel around it. Robert L. Forward did that very well in his many books. His specific intent was to teach scientific principles through novel writing, and in my opinion he did an excellent job.
Science fiction and other genres also open a reader up to the possibility of unusual new concepts; it’s a way of stretching your brain. I’ve listened to a few friends complain that they couldn’t follow the plot of The Matrix or other science fiction movies; that they were too difficult to understand. When I hear that, I can’t help but think to myself, “Gee, you must not read much.” While The Matrix was stylistically interesting, it didn’t bring up any concepts that were new to me. I had already been exposed to the idea of a reality behind our reality in several novels I had read.
Perhaps most importantly, familiarity with fiction opens the reader up to a complex world of cultural literacy only hinted at in other media, a world that is far too easy to miss. My wife once observed two college students looking at a James Christensen painting titled Aslan in Eden. “Who’s Aslan?” asked one. “No idea,” the other replied blandly, and they walked away. Christensen was trying to convey a message, but his illiterate audience of two had failed to receive it. To understand the message, one must have at least a passing familiarity with both The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, and the first few chapters of Genesis. Without that knowledge, Aslan in Eden is just a picture of an underdressed blonde chick seconds away from becoming a lion’s lunch. When one understands the subject matter, the single painting evokes myriad ideas and lines of discussion. While it is possible to enjoy James Christensen’s work solely on the merits of its fun and whimsy, for some subjects you need to know the back story. And you’re not very likely to get it through osmosis alone.
I love the works of Terry Pratchett. While his books primarily deal with life on a flat disk on the back of a giant turtle flying through space (believe me, it makes sense in context), I get more enjoyment from the many sly references to current pop culture, literature, history, movies, and anything else that strikes Pratchett’s fancy. Many of these references are hidden in the narrative, so people have taken to annotating his books. Without at least some knowledge of the original works being parodied, the reader will miss much of what Terry Pratchett has written. Likewise, William Shakespeare’s plays appear to be nothing more than a bunch of prancing actors saying “prithee” if one does not have at least a basic understanding of the history, mythology, religion and geography that Shakespeare considered to be common knowledge for his audiences.
How can you come by all this background information? Well, you could hire a battalion of tutors to instruct you, or you could spend every waking hour in a classroom. But it is far easier and cheaper to spend some time reading books on various subjects. The more you read, the more knowledge you will gain, the more you will be able to make mental connections, and the better you will be at making fast, accurate decisions. Since this is a world of constant change, the key to success is reacting quickly and properly to a new situation. Again: adapt or perish.