Thursday, September 02, 2010

Why I read

Ruined by Reading: A Life in BooksRuined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I recently went to my first meeting of a book club. The last one I was with slowly faded away, as such enterprises do. For the new one, this was its second meeting of its existence. Which is a milestone. If nothing else it means that one group of strangers did not repulse each other away and they thought it was worth meeting again. It does seem odd that less than two months before a baby arrives I am meeting new people. But I was not alone, as one guy there is a new father as well. The book we read this month was fairly unremarkable. But its subject is the place reading has played in the life of the author. Most of the book focuses on the author as a young girl. And for an author to examine the place of reading in her life is a bit of navel gazing.

So, why read? There are many arguments not to. I know many people who state that they do not read fiction, only non-fiction, viewing all fiction as fantasy and a waste of time. Various books get branded as out of bounds or satanic. Of course, many of these same people invest time in video games, shopping, and other arguably non-productive hobbies and pursuits which I do not. I also can say, as my wife would put it, I have actually done a lot of these things in real life, so living vicariously through reading is not strictly necessary.

What reading provides is a way of making my world larger. I joke that the reason I listen to people telling stories and lessons learned is that I want to hear others talk about how things went wrong. Because I am a very creative person and I want to make mistakes that are unique. Mark Twain in "Taming the bicycle" discusses learning through one's experiences only as misleading, since you don't know if what aspect of your experience provided the right lesson.

Fiction does the same. What good fiction should do (and I hold movies to the same standard) is develop a world, and provide situations for its characters to engage in the three major conflicts: man against nature, man against man and man against self. Given the setting (I always give authors and writers great leeway in how they make their setting, since real life is pretty varied as well), do the choices and consequences of the characters make sense. (again, realizing the wide range of responses people in the real world use, there is a certain amount of range available here too.) Every (good) book adds to my world, and provides a base that I take with me in engaging my world, in all of its messiness and occasional perversity. And ways of describing my experiences to others (I write a lot of after action reports and meeting notes)

Is it worth reading and talking about it with other people? Like many things, reading is a skill. There is a benefit to testing your ability to observe and synthesize with other people who also had the same experience (reading the same book). It is a given that everyone will take away different things from a book (which is not to say that the takeaway needs to be anything profound or deep), but you should at least recognize each others observations of action, character, and motivations.

But the main reason I read is that it makes my world larger. And richer. And we look forward to our son doing the same.
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