Why do we read?

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For the record, I don’t read GQ. I know vaguely that they are some kind of lifestyle magazine mainly aimed at a male audience, but that’s about it. I’ve got my own lifestyle figured out already, so I’ve never really felt the need to get one from magazines. That being said, it does occasionally appear in the app that I use to read news and blogs, and most of the time it is something I scroll past without thinking too much about. All of that means that I don’t know the kind of things that normally get published there, so maybe their content is generally pretty good; however, the subject of this post is most definitely not good.

A few days ago, GQ posted a piece called “21 books you don’t have to read.” It’s a little click-baity, so I’m not going to do it the service of linking it here. Feel free to Google, if you wish. Out of a sense of curiosity for the topic, I took a look. The piece provides a list of various well-known books, gives a short analysis of the book (using the term analysis loosely, here), and then provides something to read instead of the listed book. The trouble here is that the author’s analysis of each rejected book goes something like this: “this book was boring, and this other one is more fun!” There are multiple problems with the article, and two of them in particular I’ve pulled out for further response in the postscript at the bottom of this piece; however, overall, the GQ piece brings up an interesting question which isn’t addressed all that well in a lot of book discussions but which I would like to address here: why do we read?

Given the analysis, the GQ author’s reason seems to be entertainment. Of course, this is not a point that can be dismissed out of hand because a good book, particularly a good story, is going to be entertaining in addition to anything else that might be said about it. Also, as one of multiple different forms of media competing for our attention, yes, books can be read for entertainment in the same way that a movie can be watched for entertainment, or a video game can be played for the same reason. All are entertaining forms of media. However, if all you’re looking for in a book is entertainment, there are plenty of books that well give you that. But is that it? Is that all we should be looking for in a book? If so, then most classic literature is not the place to look. Books don’t usually endure on entertainment value alone, and a lot of classic literature is not going to be entertaining per se. Some of it may not even be enjoyable at all which leads me to my main point: quite a lot of classic books fall into what I call the vegetable category.

Allow me to explain: eating your vegetables is healthy and important to get enough nutrients, but, at the risk of painting with a broad brush, nobody really likes vegetables (vegans be damned, we all know you’re lying!). Where I’m going with this is probably obvious, but, in the event that it isn’t, some books are like vegetables: they’re healthy, but you probably won’t enjoy the process of mentally consuming them. A good example is Moby Dick. Any way you describe it, Moby Dick is a slog; it’s basically the kale salad of the vegetable books. It goes on for pages and pages about things that aren’t necessary to know in order to appreciate the story; it is incredibly dry, in places; and even though I liked a lot of the information about ships and ocean fishing, I can’t claim that I was actually entertained while I was reading all of it. Given that description, anyone would be justified in wondering why they should read the book. The answer is that it’s a vegetable book: you get other things out of it than easy entertainment. Lest this become an argument for reading Moby Dick, I’ll stop with the example here and just talk more generally: if it isn’t entertainment you are getting from classic books, what are you getting? Further, why should anyone read them? There are probably more, but my argument for classic literature comes down to three related reasons: history, ideas, and culture.

First, the historical benefit of classic literature. No one who writes a book sits down and says, “today, I think I’m going to write a piece of classic literature!” That would be absurd, and someone would probably call them out on their hubris. That being said, writers are usually responding to their particular moment in time. This is even true about stories set in the future like sci-fi. It’s usually just an extrapolation of the ideas of the writer’s moment. When you read a book, you are giving yourself a chance to step backward in time into that history, and, though you may end up seeing everything from the point of view of an author whose views would be unacceptable today, it still allows you to see from a different perspective. You don’t have to agree with the perspective, but the additional point of view is helpful in forming some of the reasons that you don’t agree. Further, being able to see, however briefly, into the past can give you some perspective on how things in general have developed. Basically, it’s an answer to the question of how we got from point A to point B. Sure, reading a history textbook might give you the same ideas, but a classic book will give you the chance to step into the lives of characters as they were lived at that particular moment in time.

This, of course, leads to the next point: the development of history is always the development of ideas as well. Humanity has always been, and always will be, a mixture of really good and really horrible ideas. This is as true now as it ever has been, and a hundred years from now, even what we might call progress is going to look antiquated. This is the point of view that you end up with if you study humanities in general, but literature provides a unique look into how those ideas were lived out in real time. Sometimes, by reading the classics, the bad ideas are on display; sometimes, the good ones get the spotlight. Either way, good reading, interpretation, and (most importantly) good criticism can give an appreciation of how those ideas developed and exactly what it is that makes an idea good or bad. By way of example (possibly by way of confession) one of my favorite books is Heart of Darkness. It’s not a cheery book by any stretch of the imagination, but one of the things it does well is give a frank and honest look at colonization, which, in case anyone is wondering, decidedly falls into the “bad idea” category. Of course, I don’t need Heart of Darkness in order to say that colonization wasn’t good; however, what it does do is give a clearer picture of the cruelties and dehumanization that went along with colonization. In other words, it helps us to see why the idea was bad. A lot of classic literature does this. It may not have been intended that way when it was written, but in its interpretation in today’s world, it can be seen from that perspective. This leads us to the final point: culture.

Now here’s a term that’s as hard as ever to pin down; however, a culture can be summed up as a set of shared beliefs, ideas, institutions, and conventions. While cultures change and develop over time, they do so fairly slowly and every iteration of a culture leaves material objects that say something about that particular time and that particular way of thinking. This is another way of looking at classic literature, then: it’s the development of a culture. Now, to be fair, I’m more familiar with western culture than anything else, but the ideas apply elsewhere as well. Also, cultural artifacts don’t always take the form of books, but since this is the subject of this argument, I’ll stick with that. If you’re an American reading a classic piece of American literature, you’re getting a good idea of the way that American culture has been shaped over time. If you read Mark Twain, for example, you’re getting an idea of post-civil-war America, warts and all. It’s not always pleasant, but it can give a lot of insight into where we are today. Basically, when you’re reading classic books, you are seeing the way that cultures have developed over time.

Now to the crux of the issue: canonized literature is not sacred. It has its share of problems, and even the books considered classic have plenty of cultural blind spots. A lot of classic literature is missing the diversity of perspectives that would be valued today, and, of course, it is open to cultural and literary critique. On top of all of this, quite a lot of classic literature is not entertaining. All three of the things I’ve mentioned so far are not entertainment; they’re learning. While we occasionally hear words like edutainment (a dubious concept, at best), learning usually isn’t fun. It implies growth and struggle, and neither of those are comfortable experiences even if they are worth the time. So to circle back to the question that kicked off this post, why do we read? We can read to be entertained all we like. There are a lot of books out there that will give us that, and if that’s what we’re looking for, then we should go for it. For my part, I’m just happy that people are reading. That being said, reading is also good for learning about the world and for broadening perspectives. Those are not comfortable experiences: they aren’t fun, and they certainly aren’t entertaining; however, just like vegetables, although the experience isn’t pleasant, it is good for you.

So overall, you could take the GQ writer’s suggestion and skip 21 books to read 21 others that are more entertaining. Or, and this is the option I would suggest, you could read 42 books that will give you some easy, entertaining books, and a healthy dose of your vegetable books that might be unpleasant, but will help you grow quite a lot more.

For a more direct response to two of the books on the list, read the postscript below.

-PWC

***

Postscript: Some Responses to Particular Items on the List

I want to just highlight two items that stood out when I read through the GQ list. These were too short to really make into two whole posts, but I also wanted to respond particularly with some personal thoughts to these two items that the author said to skip. The two are The Bible and The Lord of the Rings.

First, The Bible. There are some obvious problems on the surface of this one. The Bible is not a single book after all, and even the individual books of The Bible are vastly different in style, genre, and content. Add to that the problems with treating any group’s holy text as just another piece of literature, and you’re in some problematic territory; however, for the moment, let’s just focus on the issue of suggesting that people not read The Bible. If you want to be a literate person, and if you want to be widely read or to think about ideas that have influenced humanity over time, you would be hard pressed to find anything that has had more influence than The Bible. The various books of The Bible have been behind some of the best of western culture and its improper interpretations, behind some of the worst of western culture. A lot of great artwork depicts religious scenes, multiple pieces of literature take on similar themes, and even in modern video games, if you play as any kind of a sacrificial hero, there’s usually some reference to Jesus. To dismiss that influence outright does a thinking person something of a disservice. Even if people don’t agree with a single word of The Bible, it ought to be on anyone’s reading list just for the sheer amount of influence it has had on the world, and if that isn’t enough to be convincing, there is another compelling argument as well.

I’m not sure of the statistics of other countries, but particularly if you’re in the U.S., there is a really good chance your neighbor, or your coworkers, or a good friend, or possibly a relative, or a boss is a Christian. The latest polls have the number at around 75% of the population identifying with Christianity. Even though that number has decreased slightly in recent years, that is still a huge number. By way of contrast, that is more than the number of obese people in the U.S. (37% of the population), more than the people who vote in the U.S. (which hovers around 60-65%-ish), and just 20% less than the number of people who own cars. Any way you look at it, that is a huge number of people. Again, even if you, personally, don’t agree with anything in there, it can still help with your understanding of the people who do. Religion is very important to plenty of people, and if you want to know why, one of the best ways is to read the source material. Dismissing something like that out of hand is absurd.

To reiterate something I mentioned earlier, the piece is click-baity, so let’s be honest with ourselves here: there’s a good chance that something like The Bible is just in here to draw the ire (and therefore the clicks/advertising traffic) of various groups of people, and it seems to have worked. That being said, it’s still ridiculous to dismiss something this influential. It’s a little bit like seeing the Mona Lisa in a museum and going, “eh, I’ve seen better.” But if anything, it’s more stupid.

As for The Lord of the Rings, again, there’s a dismissal of a very influential book. It’s been influential in different ways than The Bible, obviously, but for a series that’s relatively recent, The Lord of the Rings has influenced quite a lot of writers, and there’s a good argument to be made that pretty much all medieval fantasy from Ursula K. Le Guin’s work with the Earthsea series, to Game of Thrones, to even things like Blizzard’s Warcraft games, have all taken some cues from Tolkien’s work. The reason for this is that Tolkien’s work is an exercise in one of the hardest things a fantasy writer has do: realistic world building. In Tolkien’s work, the world itself is a character as much as the members of the fellowship are, and given that the story is an epic journey from the Shire to Mordor, if the world itself wasn’t realistic and believable, none of the rest of the story would be.

As for the author’s critique of the novels being “barely readable” I’m not sure what to say. In part, this is because I’m not certain what the critique is here. I read The Lord of the Rings the first time when I was ten or eleven, and I never found them difficult to read then. Re-reading them now, I still don’t think it’s particularly difficult reading. The books are not action packed, but that’s only because it really isn’t an action story. The journey is the real story. This might be some distortion from the movies coming through. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies put far more emphasis on the action than the books do. There’s also a lot of poetry in the books, so there’s some genre-bending going on, but again, it’s nothing that’s all that complicated. Again, I’m not sure what the critique actually is, so I’m not sure how to respond other than they really aren’t hard to read.

As for the suggestion of reading the Earthsea books instead, by all means, read that too. Both The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Earthsea quartet are amazing series, and, in my opinion, they should be required reading for anyone interested in fantasy. That being said, they are both very different books that get involved with different themes. I don’t think I could honestly suggest one over the other, so my advice is read both and come to your own conclusions of which one you like the best. There’s a really good chance you’ll end up like me: you’ll like both of them, but for very different reasons.

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