When I was in college, I was constantly avoiding students who were sucked into multi-level marketing pyramid schemes. One such fellow, whom I barely knew, kept interrogating me about my values and interests in a transparent attempt to figure how he could spin Amway for me.
“I like to read” I said.
“What do you read?” he asked.
“I try to read classic literature. Do you read?” I try to turn it back on him.
“Yes, I read business books [Read: Amway propaganda].”
“So you don’t read novels?”
“No. Why would I waste my time on something that never happened? To try to figure out some ‘secret meaning’ of writers?”
Our conversation was officially over after that, but this exchange really bothered me, as never in my life before had I heard somebody question the value of literature. From as long as I can remember, I had been told that reading, and especially reading long-form fiction, is good for you. As a pre-teen, I recall my father being a bit disappointed that I was reading lots of non-fiction, but very few full-blown novels. I internalized this, and to this day, I find myself reading novels often out of a sense of moral obligation. “A good, healthy person reads at least ten novels a year,” right?
The notion that reading fiction is good for you, any fiction at all, has not always been common sense. Especially during the 19th century, many viewed novels as a threat to the emotional and moral status of their primary readership: women. Novels blurred the lines between reality and fiction, novels rotted your brain, novels were a waste of time, and so on and so forth. Similarly, a number of my peers in my secondary and post-secondary education expressed great annoyance at any kind of literature requirement we had, arguing that any kind of critical reading of the text was just inane navel-gazing invented by English teachers. For many of my classmates, and I would imagine most adults, literature is just one form of entertainment or diversion among others. The only reason we as a culture promote reading to kids over video games or television is to make sure they are reading at grade level.
I disagree with this assessment, and posit that reading, especially the taking of a mindful approach to reading, is good for a person, and good for a community.
To spearhead this apology, I am reminded of Canadian English professor and media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s formulation of “hot” and “cool” media. Hot media are the forms of communication that are more direct and one-sided, allowing the audience to be passive; McLuhan cites film, radio, and the lecture as hot media. Cool media, conversely, require more participation form the audience to gather meaning, and are often “lower resolution” than hot media. Cool media include comic books, seminars, street performances, the telephone, and the highway system. Novels, as a cool medium, require quite a bit out of the reader: a 400-page novel can easily take eight hours of time, and a great amount of patience, focus, and emotional energy to read thoroughly. Each novel is a constructed world and set of lives that we are expected to take on as our points of interest. We are tasked to listen and to understand to people whom we have not grown up with, and we may struggle to understand why and how they make the decisions that do. We must remember histories, relationships, families, attitudes, and motivations for up to dozens of new people. And by the end of the novel, we have to say goodbye.
Novels, more than film, television, podcasts, or video games, allow for the development of empathy, because the reader must help in creating the characters, the emotions, and the happenings of a story. Reading novels fosters empathy, especially for characters who are unlike us, and for people in situations different than the ones we ourselves have been in.
A contemporary of Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, made similar claims in his work An Apology for Poetry. Rather than being lies, as Plato and the religious conservatives of Sidney’s day argued, narrative fictional works do not claim to be reality, but a hypothetical and imaginative practice that builds towards one’s sense of virtue; thus, novels can help you become a virtuous person.
By virtue, I don’t mean a didactic, condescending prescription (like it’s the end of Sailor Moon and I’m being told to eat my vegetables and look both ways before crossing the street), rather, “What is the kind of person we would trust and like to have in our lives?” From my own experience, novels have helped me become more of the person I would like to be, by broadening my scope and making me a less judgmental, more caring person. Some examples include
—Middlesex and what it is like to be a person with an Intersex condition
—The Art of Fielding and why some people are attracted to a sport on a spiritual level
—Things Fall Apart and life under colonialism
—A Little Life and why some people turn to self-harm
—Netherland and the challenge of making friends as an adult
—Infinite Jest and how sincerity is a force that can save people’s lives
Conversely, reading helps us recognize just how many of our own thoughts and experiences are not unique to us, but are shared. I think of reading Tom Sawyer as a 14-year-old, and being amazed how Tom imagines if he were to die, how distraught and sorry his Aunt Polly would finally be. Or how like many of my peers, the protagonists in Notes from Underground and Dostoyevsky’s longish-short story White Nights responds to modernity by retreating into isolation and an unhealthy set of projection on prospective lovers. I found Donna Tartt’s The Secret History utterly captivating, partially because I was a liberal arts major who loved nothing more than arguing about highfalutin matters with my friends. And I found solace in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s book of creative [and spoiler alert, sometimes fictive] non-fiction Pulphead, especially the first narrative essay, when Sullivan explores his teenage flirtation with Christian Evangelicalism, an experience I share.
There are many other reasons to read: to learn new words and turns of phrase, to relax, to understand what it is the kids are talking about, to learn historical or cultural details, to explore what it is like to be your gender if you are a closeted trans person, and many more, each one of these reasons being valid. What reading is not, is a waste of time, because reading is not a task or a practice with a single goal or outcome, any more than a conversation with a friend is a waste of time, because it does not produce a specific, measurable goal.
To read is to have a conversation, and like most relationships, how it changes you will often be in ways you do not expect.