There’s a quote I’ve seen a lot recently:
I’m a reader, not because I don’t have a life, but because I choose to have many.
It’s a great antidote to all those broad-brush stereotypes of readers being boring, but what does it actually mean? When we read, we’re transported into new worlds, and experience new characters. But it’s just entertainment, isn’t I? It’s fun while it lasts, but we have to return to the real world at some point. That written world has no bearing on our own lives, right?
Think for a moment how we learn about the world. As babies and toddlers we learn through exploring—sticking things in our mouths, reaching out and touching things, and so on. But we also learn from those around us. The way we view the world is initially very much influenced by those close to us, and for a baby that generally means family.
But as we grow, we meet others, especially at school. We pick up on their world-views, and our understanding develops. Most parents, though, send their children to schools that reflect their own world-view in some way. This can happen as a deliberate choice (as with faith schools) or by accident (as most people live in areas where others are similar to themselves.)
When a child is older, they might move away to university or college. They’re independent(ish) now, free to mix with a far wider variety of people. This means an explosion of new experiences, and the opportunity to see the world from so many different viewpoints. But, in that stage between childhood and true adulthood, our brains are still developing. We’re still discovering who we are and how we fit in, and we’re especially open to all these new stimuli.
It’s no wonder that people are more likely to become involved in political and social activism during these years, or that people travel to far-off places, way outside their comfort zones, to ‘find themselves’.
Eventually, we (kind of) figure out what we want in life, and we settle down somewhere we feel comfortable—which usually means being surrounded by those whose ideas and ideals chime with our own. Maybe we have a family of our own, and our world-views are passed on to a new generation.
But the world never stops changing, and unless we want to risk being left behind, we need to change with it. We need to be constantly adapting our world-view.
Think of the way some older people say things that make us cringe-worthy. Of course, they see nothing wrong with what they’re saying, because that is how they see the world, and how they have done for decades.
So how do we keep developing? The best way is to experience more of the world. Some people do this through travel, although that takes time and money. But another way of experiencing this is in reading. Through books, we are thrust into the lives of others, in situations we’ve never encountered before. So many diverse authors bring us storied and characters that reflect their experiences, and of course these are different to our own.
If the book is well-written, we start to grow in our understanding—of what it means to live in a different society, of what it feels like to belong to a minority (or a majority), of how people cope with issues we’ve never had to face. And we can use that understanding in our own lives.
A staunch pacifist reads a book about soldiers and, although they may still believe their stance is morally correct, they gain an insight into a different point of view. Then, the next time they find themselves in an argument on the rights and wrongs of violence, they are able to show more empathy for those who believe that violence can be an answer. And maybe that’s enough to turn a potential shouting match into an intelligent debate.
These different world-views don’t have to be overtly expressed in books, though. In fact, I often find books that tackle ‘issues’ head-on come across as preachy, but a great story that has characters who are not all like me allows me to broaden my experiences I might not be able to relate to, for example, a transexual Asian youngster struggling with their identity, but I can relate to a character having problems at work, even if they also happen to be a transexual Asian youngster struggling with their identity.
A good example of this (not a book, admittedly, but it’s still story) is the TV series Brooklyn Nine-Nine. As a comedy, it’s primary aim is to make us laugh. As stories, each episode is designed to give a satisfying viewing experience. But by including diverse characters it can nudge a viewer into changing their world-view. This is perhaps best highlighted in Captain Holt, a black, gay man in an interracial relationship, but he’s a person first. I can’t directly relate to him having a same-sex partner, or of being a police captain, but I can relate to him getting frustrated with his co-workers. I can relate to him having disagreements with others, or of feeling tired, or happy, or many of the other things people do. And because I can relate to a part of him, it is easier to accept those parts that are different.
Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books show another way this vicarious experience can broaden our perceptions of others. Many of the characters in these books are morally ambiguous. One example it Sand dan Glokta, a torturer who obtains information through any means necessary. He appears to have no remorse for his actions, even when he knows he is drawing a confession from someone who is innocent.
And yet, Glokta is himself a victim of torture, and his body is a wreck. Every step is a struggle, he’s in constant pain, and he can no longer take solid food. So did he become a torturer because of his past or in spite of it? What drives him?
As the reader is drawn into Glokta’s mind, these questions naturally arise, and our minds seek answers. It doesn’t matter if we like him or despise him—as we read we start to understand him a bit more.
Tyrion Lannister, from George RR Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire books, functions in a similar way, although he is maybe more sympathetic than Glokta. Tyrion is looked down on (figuratively and metaphorically) by many in the books—and who hasn’t experienced something like this before? We have a point of reference, so when he does things that we see as morally wrong, we try to understand his reasoning. Like many characters in well-written books, Tyrion’s character is not one-dimensional, and this is true of every one of us. Through becoming immersed in the fictional world of Glokta or Tyrion (or Captain Holt), we develop the ability to better see more facets of characters in our own, non-fictional world. Through experiencing many lives through reading, we are better able to make sense of a world that, all too often, seems random and violent.
So reading is important because it enables us to experience far more of life than we can otherwise, and that teaches us about our own lives. As Albert Camus said,
Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.
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