Tag Archives: reading

Guilt When Reading Books

“Make sure you schedule a few hours a week to devote to reading.” What heavenly advice! Yet somehow the fact this was given as advice shocked me. I suddenly realized I am more used to hearing, “Stop reading and start doing something useful.” But the idea reading should be scheduled into your life feels strange and foreign to me. Reading is “fun”–this is what they repeatedly taught us in school. You’re supposed to do it because it’s fun, not because it helps you live.

Maybe this contributes to us reading books less often.

It was fair for teachers in my schooldays to try to stop me reading books, because I did read them in class, and I did neglect more productive work (like my math homework) to read. It also makes sense that teachers insist “reading is fun!” in order to get more students to read. However, somehow I internalized these messages as: reading is good but should only be done when you have nothing better to do. Which is not a problem as a kid, since you have quite a bit of free time. But as an adult, reading suddenly becomes a less justifiable activity–when in reality this is a problematic way to view reading!

I certainly still read a lot, but I mainly read a lot of articles online, and the shortness of these articles probably deceives me into thinking I’m not actually wasting much time on them. I imagine I’m briefly and efficiently informing myself. But, of course, what I’m actually doing is feeding and fueling my addiction to information. You can never read enough interesting facts on the internet. But in order to gain a deeper understanding of reality you need more than interesting facts on the internet. You need books.

In other words, I need to get past the idea that reading is not meant to be scheduled into your productive time, but only into your leisure time.

If reading is only ever done for pure leisure, the result is you never pick up a challenging read. Reading that takes work is too much to do when your brain is already over-strained and tired. You end up reading only really light novels, or popularizations of fun topics (such as hygge or Nikola Tesla). Do you want to read about the categorical imperative after a hard day’s work?

In other words, the important works–the works that have changed our civilization–never get read. We never apply ourselves to answering the questions they raise, because we don’t know what questions they raise. We never seek to face the challenges of humanity because we never justify applying ourselves to learning about them.

It is, in fact, a nice solution to consider certain types of reading work. To consider this reading as necessary, and not just for building the practical skills that may in some way help you in your job. To consider reading as a thing that can form and shape character, and as a thing we actually should invest in in order to form and shape our own character. That this is not merely a leisure activity that is optional, but that we are justified in carving out space for this pursuit in our lives.

I almost don’t dare to schedule in directed reading in my schedule. First of all, I hardly know where I’d fit it in. Second, many great works of great writers intimidate me. However, I should be more aware of the consequences of not doing this. Of reading lightly, and assuming I am well-read.

Recently I was reading Augustine’s Confessions–a very classic work that has impacted Western civilization–and I was lying on the couch and feeling like very strange about being on that couch reading. In fact, I was even reading it in order to review it, but I still felt self-conscious. Then I realized that while I used to devour books when I was younger, I now intentionally push myself to read a physical book, and when I do sit down to read I feel like I really should be writing or cleaning my house or studying my schoolwork. Reading, as a mere input of information, feels like a sacrifice of the time you should be devoting to output. And the genius of the online world, and online reading, is that it creates the illusion you are both inputting and outputting information. You read articles in order to share them. You take in information in order to comment on it publicly. You create artistic representations of what you are doing by posting on Instagram, etc. While none of this online chatter really impacts the world greatly, your conscience doesn’t tug as much because you feel you’re using the information presented. You’re not just taking something in, but you’re offering something up to the world in return. It doesn’t matter how trivial what you offer is, you still gain the sense of accomplishment that comes by just offering it.

But this overemphasis on output–on our individual response to the information that seems to be demanded by the internet, and our culture in general–glosses over the necessity of taking the time to input good information. Our responses are expected to be instant. If something takes a long time for us to process, it has to be really, really worth it before we decide it is justifiable to set that time aside.

This year I actually took a year off to go back to school and study, and what I am learning is that to truly understand you actually need to do more than read the quick summaries of topics that float around on the internet. I thought I knew a lot about theology (my topic of study), and that some of the questions I’d fruitlessly searched for answers to probably did not have good answers, since I could not find any. However, the reality is that some of these answers were book-length, not internet-friendly listicles, and therefore I actually was justified in taking a year to study such things. In fact, I should really take a lifetime.

The job of professional scholar is not an incredibly realistic role in our current society, but we do have unimaginable access to information in our modern world. Therefore I do have the opportunity to devote a lifetime to learning, even outside of school. The hurdle that I have to get over–and perhaps you do too–is the tendency to devalue the time we spend on the couch with a book. To devalue the patience that lets the classic authors of the past speak for themselves, instead of watching YouTube summaries.

I must reorient the value I place on reading, so that the time it takes to read is not slotted into that category of “wasted time.”

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The Books You Fight With

Jane Austen’s been in the news a lot lately, due to her death happening two hundred years ago. As with most occasions Austen is mentioned, discussion turns to ranking her books. Pride and Prejudice is apparently preferred by the popular vote, while Emma is lauded by the critical vote. And I have no argument with this—I’d put one or the other of those at the top myself, except—what book do I find myself meditating on the most? Which one do I wrestle with, and spend hours studying thematically and artistically? It’s not my favourite book, but it has the power to haunt my thoughts more than all the others combined. It’s Mansfield Park.

Does this mean it’s the best one?

Some books you’d never choose as your favourite, but they’re the ones with the power to haunt your thoughts. And a book with that kind of power is perhaps more genius than we want to give it credit for. So maybe we should recognize some of the books we fight with more than we do.

This is not to say these books are perfect. Often it’s some of their very flaws that cause us to wrestle with them so deeply. I, for one, will never forgive Mansfield Park for ending with the very same scandal as Pride and Prejudice (though Jane Austen is really not to be blamed—how many exciting societal events did she really have to work with for the climaxes of her novels?) Flaws are part of the reason, but not the whole reason. For instance, I fight with the protagonist’s (Fanny’s) passivity every time I read it. But I can’t shake the feeling her passiveness means something. I can’t shake the feeling this novel displays something more fundamental about Austen’s worldview than all the others. In which case, it might be some of her most important work.

And I get this feeling when I read That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis as well.

Just like with Mansfield Park, among the people that know such a book exists, opinions are divided between those who highly dislike the novel, and those who love it. It was while discovering my brain was stuck in a loop pondering the message of this book, actually, that I realized the books we fight with might have more power over our thoughts than the ones we love.

Because we love easy-to-understand. We love comforting concepts. But the ideas we may need to grapple with are not always easy or comforting.

For example, I need to consider whether passivity and helplessness, as Fanny shows in Mansfield Park, does have value. Despite my modern context screaming at me about the value of assertiveness and standing up for yourself, I need to not despise Fanny for not being ‘modern’ in this way.

When it comes to That Hideous Strength, I need to accept it’s not going to feed me comforting ideas that I really like, as the first book in the trilogy did (Out of the Silent Planet). Sure, I may have issues with some of the plot, and the time spent with unlikable characters, and the possibly ludicrous events that happen. But what I may be avoiding thinking about by doing this is how much some of these unlikable characters resemble me. Or worse—how I’d like some of the unlikable protagonists to be squashed like a bug because they remind me of unlikable people I personally know—but the novel shows them grace. So I should maybe do so too.

I’d go into the plot more but this book is so obscure for a C.S. Lewis book that I don’t know how many of you will have heard of it. I’ll just say check it out if you like his work. My brain thinks about it more than all my other favourite parts of the Space Trilogy.

So start appreciating those books you fight with. They’re at least as powerful as your favourites.

Drop me a line below about which books these are for you!

 

 

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Let the Children Grow Up–They Do in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

‘Neglectful’ was the word tossed around by one reviewer of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Apparently the Professor was neglectful of the children he’d taken into his house during the bombings of WWII, letting them run through his house on their own and not over-scheduling every minute of their day with dance class, extra tutoring, or athletics.

Let’s leave aside the fact that a bachelor professor who appears to be entirely unused to children decides, out of the kindness of his heart, to shelter a group of four children seeking refuge from the bombing of London. Such a man might not be exactly up-to-date on the recent recommendations of the mommy blogs, nor might he think it harmful for children to just take care of themselves for some hours of the day (as children used to do in decades past). Let’s leave all that aside and look at how the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are actually allowed to grow up in this book.

Now that our society has invented the idea of childhood (and this is not a bad thing), we have created a very specific, protected idea of what childhood should be. However, in order to grow up children have to eventually step outside of this safe, protected bubble. You might even let them blunder through your house and through a half-forgotten wardrobe that sometimes is a portal to another very dangerous and magical world.

In other words, they become independent and make their own decisions.

It’s very interesting that one well-known criticism of Narnia is that the children don’t grow up–or at least, not in the right way.

“The idea of keeping childhood alive forever and ever and regretting the passage into adulthood—whether it’s a gentle, rose-tinged regret or a passionate, full-blooded hatred, as it is in Lewis—is simply wrong,” the famously outspoken critic of Narnia, Philip Pullman said once in an interview in The New Yorker. His own series, His Dark Materials, attempts to rectify this by having his protagonist grow up and awaken to her own sexuality at the end. Now, as far as I can tell, the children don’t embark on any sexual relationships in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but I don’t think this is the only valid marker of growing up. They do grow up.

And this is why I loved this book. At the end, they actually get to live out their whole lives in Narnia–become kings and queens and put into practice everything the story taught them up to then. So often as a child I’d read fiction where the characters went back in time, or went to another world, and learned something, but they never got to use it in that world. They always had to come back. They always remained children. The reader never fully saw the consequences of the story’s ideas.

And besides the ending of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which so satisfyingly lets the children have a life in the world they helped to save, they have to ‘do’ things throughout the book.

I, who was raised in the safe, coddled confines of ‘be careful!’ ‘safety first!’ and ‘accidents are always preventable!’ was astonished to read about Peter picking up his sword when Susan is attacked by the wolf, and to read Aslan saying, “Back! Let the prince win his spurs!”–just after Aslan finished telling Peter about how he must become king one day. My heart was in my mouth–they weren’t actually going to let Peter do something, were they? Of course he would want to rescue his sister, but there must be some more experienced, more adult character around that should save her.

But no, if Peter is to be a king one day he must shoulder the responsibilities of adulthood himself.

Here we come to another controversial aspect–the children fight in the story. Now, we could point to the times, and argue that children in history had very different lives than they have today, and nobody at the time thought it at all odd. We could point out that Lewis lived through WWI, when very young teenagers died by the thousands in the trenches. We could point to the fact the story is set in WWII, when ‘fighting the enemy’–physically fighting, and not with economic sanctions or making a show of army exercises on a country’s borders–was viewed positively. But really what it comes down to is allowing the children to learn that not everything in life comes easily, or without a struggle. The villain won’t helpfully toss himself off the cliff for them. They must act.

This is not to say violence is glorified here–the children don’t especially like fighting. But they certainly have to back up their beliefs with their deeds.

Now, there may be books where children must grow up even more than the children do in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They may have to, say, face a thousand more deaths of close friends, and watch graphically described gore pass in front of them. You could certainly imagine a ‘grittier’ children’s book than Narnia, even if you’d hesitate to actually give such a book to a child. I’m just arguing this was the first time I read a children’s book that showed me how to go beyond childhood. It showed me the good and bad in the challenge of growing up.

Millennials, a group of which I am a member, are frequently derided as a group that doesn’t know how to grow up. And I obviously can’t point to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a guide that taught me how to grow up–of the typical markers of adulthood (marriage, children, house, career), I can only possibly point to career as an objective marker of the level of adulthood I’ve achieved. Reading literature in this vein is not a cure-all for the ‘millennial problem’ (and I’ve read His Dark Materials too, lest you argue that series would’ve helped me more). However, children need a vision of adulthood to aspire to. They need to read different ways of shouldering the responsibility of living. And if we only present fiction where parents and guardians are not ‘neglectful,’ and hover over children just as much as parents and guardians actually do nowadays in real life, we’d hold back the whole process.

Give the kids some space. Let them grow up.

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Out of the Silent Planet Awoke My Imagination – Let It Awake Yours Too

C.S. Lewis, by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

C.S. Lewis, by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

I’ve been meaning to read Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis for a long time, ever since I discovered Lewis really did write fiction besides the Chronicles of Narnia. Now that I have I can’t resist blogging about it, because it excited me so much to find out how good it was. I rarely review books here, but some books are worth it, and if you’ve been looking for a worthwhile book I’ll write down some things to consider with this one.

Out of the Silent Planet always sounded like such an intriguing title, but I probably haven’t touched it till now because it’s sci-fi. Also, you hear so much less about it than the Chronicles, so you assume it can’t be quite as highly regarded. And after a brief survey of the internet writings on it, I think opinion on this book is a little more divided. But those who love it really love it, and now I’m one of them.

Basically, in this book a professor, Elwin Ransom, gets kidnapped and taken to another planet, Malacandra. The book actually has many reasons to inspire dislike, or a more tepid reception, including its out-of-date science and scientific errors, its theological ideas sprinkled throughout, and some weaknesses in story construction. I’ll first list all the irritations and dislikes I had while reading (skipping over any scientific discussion, as I know very little about scientific beliefs at the time), and then I’ll explain what blew me away.

I shall attempt to talk about it without spoiling too much of it, and obviously will not bring in any of the rest of the trilogy, since I haven’t read them yet.

The Bad:

It was incredibly difficult to get into the story. There is nothing especially compelling about Ransom as a character—you don’t start chapter one and immediately get excited you get to follow this character for the rest of the story. I picked it up several times without making it through the first chapter. I ended it without a real strong idea of what the guy was like. You don’t get any sense of his life outside the events of the story. Is he motivated to escape Malacandra and get back to his life as a professor on earth? Does he have any human relationships he’s missing? What brought him to the point where he decided to take a walking tour? He doesn’t seem to have any internal struggles, other than the small character arc of overcoming his fear-based response to everything.

The rest of the characters are somewhat caricatures too. There’s a scientist whose sole focus is human progress, and whose speeches mainly consist of his ideas of human progress. There’s another bad guy who’s solely driven by greed. There’s a lot of ‘good’ characters who don’t change throughout the novel, because they’re good already.

Yes, there were a few points where I was reading it that I thought to myself—can this really be C.S. Lewis? This is a very poorly constructed novel! People must just read it out of loyalty to him!

On top of the rest of these flaws take the very limited and slow amount of action this novel contains. There’s certainly conflict—why was Ransom kidnapped? Can he escape? Can he find food and drink on this new planet? Etc., etc. But most issues just sort of resolve themselves without Ransom having to fight too much for them. The climax, in the worst light, could be seen as everything in the story just easily resolving themselves.

 

The Good:

The first part where I suddenly found myself being drawn into the story was during Ransom’s philosophizing on the spaceship during the journey to Malacandra. And I HATE philosophy, so it’s shocking for me to say the philosophy in this book are some of the best parts of the story. But it’s true.

These parts are written very beautifully, which is no surprise considering Lewis was a very adept writer. They confront our stereotypical ideas of space travel and ever so subtly turn them inside-out. Is space empty? Are aliens inferior to humans? Are aliens hostile to humans? What do you think?

About halfway through I would have described it as an excellent philosophical treatise with a story tacked on. But the plot kept turning, and despite the characters being somewhat motivation-less and wooden, there were several emotional moments that absolutely hit home. I was surprised to discover I really did care about what happened to them.

There’s some incredible descriptions in here as well. Lewis does what many authors forget to do (in the books I’ve read, anyway), and grounds his perspective in his character so deeply that the reader sees what the character sees. For example, when getting off the spaceship Ransom is initially unsure which colours are ground, which as water, which are trees, etc. Which is absolutely true—if you don’t have any context for figuring out a new location, you are confused at first! Just think about getting out of a different subway station and being completely unsure which street is which. Lewis also does not immediately have Ransom realize the spaceship he travels to Malacandra in is shaped like a sphere–he first describes the odd shape of the room from Ransom’s perspective, and the slow realization that the shape is due to the spaceship’s overall spherical shape. Few authors do this–they immediately have the characters perceive they’re on another planet and describe it, or on a spaceship and describe it, without exploring the process of realization that occurs in a character’s head. There’s more than one passage like this, and these ground the story in reality in a strong way.

So, after good philosophy and unique descriptions, this book also hinges on languages in a way that excites me as a person who loves words. Ransom does not have a ‘universal translator,’ but actually has to learn the alien language. Then he has to translate some ‘Earth’ ideas into this alien language, which is an ever-so-subtle device to explore some of the ideas we take for granted. It’s lovely, lovely. You’d never see this in a blockbuster movie, but it drives the action in such a different way than you’d expect.

Lastly, this book made me realize how long it’s been since I read a book that really thrilled my imagination. I didn’t think C.S. Lewis could pull it off and really bring the story together in a satisfying way, because I’ve gotten so good at predicting with the first few chapters of a novel how bad the novel is going to be. I’ve also had far too many promising novels fade away into gibberish and frustration. It’s so wonderful to discover you’re actually in the hand of an author you can trust–an author who writes well and plots well and will not disappoint you even in a story with weaknesses. My imagination was so fired up this week, and it was a shock to discover I’d forgotten what that felt like.

In Conclusion:

What is really interesting about super-good books, and the one thing I love about them, is how so many of them do not follow the advice writers are constantly being given today. I can’t imagine any publisher publishing this book nowadays. It starts off soooooooooooo slow—just a guy walking through the back lanes of England. It has such wooden characters, characters without real character arcs. It takes sooooooooo long for any sort of action to occur, and the action that does occur fails to create much suspense. Why would a publisher take it on?

But yet—you care about these wooden characters! Somehow by the middle the shocking thing that happens affects you emotionally. You even feel pity and some sympathy for the bad guys at the end. And the climax and ending is somehow satisfying, even though a reader could so easily feel cheated if these events were not well-written.

I think, despite the good behind teaching writers how to better their craft, we sometimes risk making all writing exactly the same. We could be overlooking the next C.S. Lewis by insisting on being dropped into the middle of the action. And I do not say this under any delusions that I am the next C.S. Lewis who should not be ignored, because I know there’s so much about character and plot that I need to keep on learning about until the end of the my writing days. But stories can somehow, some way, work without these things. Our confidence in our knowledge about what is ‘good’ storytelling may be far too similar to our confidence in the progress of history and the idea we’re superior to civilizations that have come before us. We’re missing the context. We unknowingly blind ourselves to what they can teach us.

However, to conclude this review–Out of the Silent Planet will likely not change anyone’s mind about C.S. Lewis. If you dislike his philosophizing and general outlook on life, you won’t find this book any different. If you dislike his neat and logical prose, you’ll find that here as well. Even if you love C.S. Lewis because of the Chronicles of Narnia, you may find this one a little ‘weirder.’ But if you love inventive settings that inspire you to think about the world in new ways, give this one a shot. It’s worth it.

 

 

Have you read Out of the Silent Planet, and if so, what did you think?

 

Related Book Reviews of Out of the Silent Planet:

While writing this post I discovered there were not a lot of people writing about the Space Trilogy, so I thought I’d link to a few good reviews I came across here.

The Silent Planet of C.S. Lewis – why this book counts as good classic sci-fi despite having angels in it.

The Cosmic Trilogy 1: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – a deeper review of the books as a whole.

Out of the Silent Planet – a comparison with Gulliver’s Travels that I didn’t notice myself.

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A Few Classics That Are Not Hard to Read

Classics are usually heavy reading. Even if they’re short, the language is unfamiliar enough that they take a long time to get through. But every once in a while you find one that surprises you, and here are three that surprised me.

Note: I’m not including any classics described as ‘children’s literature’ in this list.

'Around the World in Eighty Days' by Neuville and Benett 22
Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne

I just really enjoyed the very punctual and methodical Phileas Fogg racing around the world with his comic French servant, Passepartout. They get into preposterous adventures of all sorts, some of which strain believability but are incredibly fun to read. It gives a wonderful picture of travel before airplanes were invented, with railroads and steamboats. Verne is known as a science fiction author, but this was a contemporary novel for him—and so for us it’s a nice view in on the past. Also, I loved the sudden revelation of Fogg’s tender side in the end.

As a side note, Jules Verne’s novels have historically received poor English translations, which led him to have a higher reputation in his native France than in the English-speaking world. This is the only sample of his work I’ve read, but I quite enjoyed him. In addition, I’ve noticed publishers give this novel nonsensical cover pages – one edition had a hot air balloon, but hot air balloons failed to appear in the story. Another recent edition has a daredevil racing in an old-fashioned car, but this does not happen in the novel either.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

This remains the only Dickens novel I’ve read cover to cover. It’s short, so Dickens’ verbosity won’t put you off. The plot is easy enough to follow. I actually read it because I knew nothing about the plot and wanted to find out what this Christmas carol business everyone always went on about at Christmastime was all about, but I’ve reread it since without boredom. I’ve heard complaints about the opening paragraphs, where Dickens goes on about different types of nails and why the doornail should not be considered the ‘deadest’ type of nail out there, but personally I found it humorous. If you find it tedious, it’s a short novel, so it’s soon over and the rest of the plot begins!

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

This was my introduction to Jane Austen, and I still believe it’s the easiest one to start with (though none of her novels are too difficult for the modern reader, aside from the formality of the language). This novel gets right into the action and humor, with Mr. Bingley arriving in town and Mrs. Bennett nagging her husband to go meet him. It does not start with family history, like Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Mansfield Park. The heroine is lively enough that it’s not a chore to follow her through the story, and the story is shorter than Emma. There’s a few lulls in action, but overall it’s a very satisfying romance and shows off Austen’s talent very well.

 

 

These are my recommendations—your mileage may vary! After all, I thought Lord of the Rings and The Iliad were surprisingly easy to get into, and I know many people who didn’t. And I just struggle with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, while others just love them. But if you’re meaning to read a few novels that have stood the test of time, these are a few places to start!

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Do You Hear Voices In Your Head? (While Reading)

Do you hear voices in your head? When you’re reading, I mean. Of course I mean when you’re reading. I’m not trying to suggest anyone is crazy…

I mean, do you hear voices of narrators and characters speaking out loud in your head when you’re reading?

I’d never thought about this before. I’m struggling to remember what I actually hear when I read, but I think I enter the fictional world so completely that it’s hard for me to pin down individual sensations when I snap out of it. However, many people do hear voices. And accents.

This phenomenon was brought by to me by a lovely lady I was having lunch with this week. She insisted she heard books by Welsh authors read out in her head in a Welsh accent, and British authors in a British one. Until this point, I’d never considered this. I guess I always imagined everyone experienced books in exactly the same way as me.

But that would be a terribly ridiculous assumption, wouldn’t it? No one experiences the same book in exactly the same way. That’s part of the fun!

(I do find author’s accent sort of affect the overall tone of a work while I’m reading – C.S. Lewis, being British, has a different atmosphere in his books than others, but I feel that might be more due to word choices. Like when he described a hypothetical man as a lunatic – “on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg.” Why a poached egg, precisely?)

Just to prove this is not in the head of only one person in this world, I will point you to an article in The Guardian where readers describe all sorts of audible and visual experiences while reading, including – you guessed it, people who are not sure they hear anything at all. Very interesting read! There are all kinds of people in the world, after all.

Okay, now I am off to power-read three chapter of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which the informal book club I belong to has decided to read next.

Leave your experiences with disembodied voices in the comments! Do you hear voices when you read?

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There’s No Answer To the Question – Why Read?

Still plugging my way through NaNoWriMo (so far on track, by the way, thanks for asking), so it’s another shorter post this week! It follows up nicely to last week’s post on Neil Gaiman’s opinion on the value of reading, actually. Sure, why not fight this argument out some more? We all know reading is valuable, but it’s ironically hard to put into words why.

The value of fiction, Gaiman says, is – it’s a gateway drug to reading, and a way to build empathy skills. Now, here’s another perspective on reading from Mark O’Connell, who argues against using the ‘empathy’ argument too much. Don’t tie reading straight to making you a better person, O’Connell argues, as if reading a chunk of the work of some approved literary genius every day would eventually cause your interpersonal skills to go off the charts. Readers love hearing about scientific studies that ‘prove’ reading does actually increase empathy. But even if there was no noticeable, objective, ‘scientific’ proof that reading made you a better person, would it still be worth doing?

It would be, O’Connell argues.

“I don’t know whether all those boxes full of books have made me any kind of better person; I don’t know whether they’ve made me kinder and more perceptive, or whether they’ve made me more introspective and detached and self-absorbed. Most likely it’s some combination of all these characteristic, perhaps canceling each other out. But I do know that I wouldn’t want to be without those books or my having read them, and that their importance to me is mostly unrelated to any power they might have to make me a more considerate person.”

Here’s where I land as well. I think I am more empathetic because I read. I was never very good at reading other people’s emotions, but books have provided me a way to see inside of other people’s heads. Still, that truly is not the first reason I read. That’s not the first thing I think of when people ask me why I like books. It’s more like a side benefit.

So what is the right answer to the question, why read? Maybe there isn’t one. An answer that can easily encompass everything reading actually means to us readers, and that can actually communicate to non-readers and convince them of reading’s value – well, maybe translating that into a couple sentences, a paragraph, or even a whole article is just too much to ask.

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Neil Gaiman on Reading, Reading Terrible Books, and Libraries

So, at the last moment I decided to sign-up for NaNoWriMo, which will significantly cut in the time I spend writing for this blog. (In theory, at least – I hope I can force myself to churn out terrible writing for a month – sometimes I’m too much of a perfectionist!) Since this is the first day, I’ll point you to another absolutely lovely piece of writing (well, technically it was originally a lecture, but it’s still lovely). It is Neil Gaiman, explaining the value found in fiction.

I have trouble explaining to people why reading is so important, myself. Especially when I am lazy and I read terribly written stuff. Also, at times I feel bad when I sit down and read, as if I’m actually doing nothing, even though I know my brain is working.

It’s pretty widely accepted in our society that reading is important, but most of us wouldn’t know how to argue why if someone didn’t believe it. After all, can’t we get all the info we need in short little video clips on YouTube if we wanted? And we all hang out with many people who proudly declare, “I don’t read,” and we don’t know if we ought to have a good reply to that.

So, Neil Gaiman will go ahead and explain this better than I can. He’ll defend reading bad fiction too, fortunately for me. I certainly had my share of teachers who frowned on the books I read growing up. And, after defending both of those things, he’ll go on to defend libraries. Anyone who defends libraries (lovely, book-smelling places) is all right in my books.

Here it is! Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

I could add more complex thoughts on several of theses, and on Gaiman as an author in general (I have actually read a couple of his books), but I have a couple thousand words of a novel to churn out. So I’ll leave you lovely readers to discuss it amongst yourselves!

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Learn From the Pros – Read Like a Writer (Not A Reader)

quotables button When I teach literature I always tell them, these would-be writers (we don’t do workshops, we just read great books), I say, “When you read Pride and Prejudice, don’t if you’re a girl identify with Elizabeth Bennet, if you’re a boy with Darcy. Identify with the author, not with the characters.” All good readers do that automatically, but I think it’s helpful to make that clear. Your affinity is not with the characters, always with the writer. You should always be asking yourself, if you want to become an expert reader or perhaps a writer, you should always say, “How is this being achieved?” “How is this scene being managed?” “How is this being brought off?” Because the characters are artifacts. They’re not real people with real destinies and I know that feeling, when you’re reading Pride and Prejudice even for the fourth time, you feel definite anxiety about whether they’re going to get married, even though you know perfectly well that they do. There’s a slight sort of, “Come on, kiss her!”

Martin Amis

Writers are generally told to do two things – write and read. But here is lovely advice from Martin Amis (whose work I’ve never read, and who I don’t know much about, but whose advice here is spot on). There is a difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer. I’ve always done both, but if I want to learn why some books are classics, I should do more of the latter.

Because there are so many lively, witty young women in romance novels, and yet Elizabeth Bennett stands above them all. How does Jane Austen make us care about her? It’s easy just to straight-up identify with what Elizabeth is feeling, and more difficult to dig through the layers and figure out how the writing helps you identify with her.

So – something to keep in mind next time you read!

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Peck Out Her Eyes, She Deserves It!

Vindictiveness in Fiction

'Just Desserts,' by Paulina Smit. Creative Commons.

‘Just Desserts,’ by Paulina Smit. Creative Commons.

Some versions of Cinderella end with her ordering her bird-friends to peck out her stepsisters’ eyes. Yes, the sweet, lovely Cinderella whom we all heard about as a kid – though clearly not the Disney version. Apparently she decided to take revenge and punish her sisters by blinding them in the most gruesome way she could think of. Or, in other versions of the story, exiling them to the wilderness, or forcing them to be slaves.

 I always preferred the endings where she invites her stepsisters and stepmother to live in the castle instead, and teaches them how to be gracious. After all, Cinderella is supposed to be better than them, and if she resorts to petty vindictiveness to punish them, how is she better than her stepsisters, who mistreated her because she was prettier than them?

(See my version of Cinderella, Prince Charming, to see what I think about the character of the prince!)

 I always wanted to think if anyone could be outstandingly forgiving, it was Cinderella. And I always wanted to think the stepsisters learned to be better people after what happened. Maybe I’m just an optimist about humanity.

 But, strangely enough, vindictiveness is a strong theme in many works of fiction. I mean, take The Count of Monte Cristo. This is a book completely centred around a man taking revenge, it is regarded as a true classic, and its plot keeps getting used by many other works (the movie, The Mask of Zorro, for instance, and Charade, an actual Christian inspirational fiction book that uses the same plot).

 In the book, the Count of Monte Cristo takes great pleasure in revenge. He manipulates a man’s wife to commit suicide and take her son with her as well, driving the man insane. Then he destitutes another man, and causes a third to commit suicide. Of course, the point of the book is that they all deserved it, but still…

 Clearly, punishing people who were mean to you is attractive to most readers, and I’m not really surprised this natural human reaction is so popular. Everyone likes to see someone get their comeuppance. I am surprised that I don’t enjoy it. Like I said before, I like the versions of Cinderella where she doesn’t punish her stepsisters, and the parts of The Count of Monte Cristo where he relents instead of taking revenge. But this quirk of mine ends up interfering with my enjoyment of other classics as well.

 Take Roald Dahl. Everyone loves Roald Dahl! Everyone’s read at least a dozen of his books in their childhood – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, etc. So I read them too, and they confused me like crazy. As a kid, I couldn’t figure out if I was supposed to laugh or feel bad (I actually felt bad) when James’ aunts get flattened by the giant peach, or Veruca Salt gets carried away by squirrels.

 So while I knew these books were wonderfully creative and inventive – no one’s written about being inside a chocolate factory before! And definitely not a chocolate factory that was so fun – I couldn’t get past feeling uncomfortable with them. In this case, I never particularly felt that the characters in the book were the vindictive ones – Charlie, or James, for example. It was just this undercurrent of vindictiveness that ran through most of the books – as if the author himself was exorcizing his demons.

 So here’s the thing – bad characters should learn something, or be punished, or whatever makes a satisfactory ending to a story. But what I find uncomfortable is when other characters take this into their own hands. Because I don’t believe we ever see things quite clearly when we’ve been hurt. And I’m always afraid that taking this kind of revenge just tangles things up and makes them worse.

But that’s just me. What do you think about vindictiveness in fiction?

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