Are there too many books?

Are there too many books in the world?

If you look at the numbers, it might seem that way. A bit of Googling, and I came up with a figure of over a million new books being published every year in the US. Add to this the 13 million books from previous years that are still available, and that’s an awful lot of reading material. And that’s only in the US. Google reckons there are nearly 130 million books in the whole world, and that it would take about 60,000 years to read them all.

That’s going on a book a day, too. The average American reads roughly 4 books a year. In the UK, the average person reads for only 5 hours per week.

Yet more and more books are being produced each year. I found one statistic that said a new book is published on Amazon every five minutes (and that was back in 2014). Even if this is a very conservative estimate, that’s over 250 new books every single day.

Loads of books!Looking at this with cold logic, when it’s impossible for a single person to even read a fraction of what already exists, there seems no reason for putting more stories out into the world. Yet many of us continue writing, and continue adding to this immense pile of fiction available to readers.

But the numbers don’t tell us everything.

Every reader is different, with different reading habits and tastes. Similarly, every writer has a different style, their own take on things, their own unique way of telling a story. Readers can go through many books before finding an author who resonates with them.

This is why there is usually a wide range of reviews, even on popular, commercially successful books. What one reader can’t stand, another will love.

As readers, we want to find books resonate with us. That might be in their style of writing, or the stories themselves, or something else‌—‌the rounded characters, or the witty dialogue, or the evocative settings.

Of course, it’s hard to find these ideal books‌—‌but we keep on reading, keep on searching. The more books available to us, the better our chances of finding that book, of discovering that writer whose voice speaks to us. And, as a writer, I keep putting these books out with the confidence that, somewhere, there is a reader who has been waiting for this particular book, even if they don’t know it themselves.

octopus-1235006_1280Once a reader finds that one book, of course, they often seek out others by the same writer. I know this through experience‌—‌it’s why I have every Douglas Adams book, why I’ve still got just about every Terry Pratchett book in paperback, every Iain Banks book. It’s why I get pre-orders of every book Barry Hutchison puts out, be they in the Space Team series or something else. It’s why I’ll look out for new books by the Platt/Truant/Wright team. And, as a writer, I know that, if someone clicks with one of my books, they’re likely to want more‌—‌and so I’ll do what I can to provide for them.

There’s obviously a certain amount of financial incentive in this‌—‌the more readers who like my books, the more copies I sell, and the more money I make. But there are other reasons why I write and publish books.

There’s something incredibly satisfying with whole creation process‌—‌and in a society where we are encouraged so often to be passive consumers (of all kinds of media) it’s important that everyone has some kind of creative outlet. In the past this was music for me‌—‌hours spent playing guitar, recording and manipulating sounds, editing as best I could‌—‌but for you it’s probably something different. Maybe it’s gardening, or cooking, or painting, or sewing. For me, at this moment in time, it’s writing.

Of course, creating anything is never plain sailing. There’s planning, and moments when things don’t seem to be working. There are different stages of revision, correcting one issue but having that lead to more things that need altering. But this is all part of the challenge‌—‌if it was easy, why bother?

I could write stories purely for my own entertainment, but there’s a persuasive argument that anything we create doesn’t really exist until we let it out into the world. This can be both scary and liberating‌—‌what if readers hate it? What if they love it? What if it’s ignored? But until I publish, the story isn’t complete.

This drive to produce (and publish) more stories makes the original question‌—‌are there too many books?‌—‌almost redundant. Yes, there are more books in the world than any one person can read. But there is also more music out there than a single person could listen to in a lifetime, more TV and film, more paintings and sculptures, more great meals and beautifully tended gardens, more of everything than we can ever experience. Art and creativity are all around us, and it’s being added to all the time. And this is a good thing‌—‌the more there is, the more we can experience.

The more books that exist, the more books there are for each of us, with our individual tastes, to read and enjoy.

Why the hero must save the day

It’s always disappointing when a story that begins with so much promise falls in the final pages.

This happened recently in a trilogy I was reading. The first book was great‌—‌it worked well as a complete story, but with enough unanswered questions to encourage me to keep reading. The second book meandered a little, but I was able to let that pass‌—‌it was setting things up for what promised to be gut-wrenching finale. The hero had gone through so much inner turmoil, but now he was in an impossible situation‌—‌the only way to save the world would, without question, result in his own death. Could someone who had been acting from selfish motives for so much of the previous two books make the ultimate sacrifice?

The third book in the trilogy started strongly as the hero battled the fears in his mind as well as the physical dangers all around. Then, in the final few chapters, everything changed. One of the ‘bad’ characters was going through his own struggle of conscience, and when it came to the end moments, he stepped in. This reformed character took the place of the hero and died to save the world.

At first glance, this might seem to be a good ending‌—‌the world is saved, and the hero lives. It’s win-win, surely. But as I read those final chapters, I felt cheated. To be honest, it ruined my whole experience of these books.

handshake-4040911_1280One reason I felt cheated was down to a broken promise. In any book, the writer gives certain promises to the reader. These might not be made explicit, but most readers will pick up on them subconsciously. If a group of characters have been preparing for a big battle, then there is an inherent promise that there will be a battle. When the two main characters meet in a romance, even if they can’t stand each other initially, there is a promise hard-wired into the genre that they will end up in a happily-ever-after.

And in the trilogy I read, with so many words given over to the hero’s struggle with his situation, there was a clear promise‌—‌the hero would sacrifice himself to save the day.

But he didn’t. The promise was broken.

And, to add to my dissatisfaction, he ultimately did very little to help save anyone. It felt as if the preceding three books’ worth of internal and external trials were all for nothing. So much work, and at the defining moment the hero stepped aside and let another take his place.

That’s like an athlete training hard, spending hours running in the cold, struggling through injury and personal doubt, slowly realising that they can win the big race‌—‌then having someone else run in their place. Or a musician practising every hour of the day on a complicated piece of music, fighting to prepare in time for the deadline of a major concert‌—‌and then sitting in the audience as someone else plays the piece for them.

As readers, we expect the hero to be the one to save the day. We want that stand-up-and-cheer moment when they overcome the odds. So if we’re given a different ending, we don’t get the closure we want.

Imagine how watching Star Wars would’ve felt if, instead of Luke destroying the Death Star, one of the other pilots had done so. Or if Harry Potter, in his final battle, stood aside as one of the Hogwarts teachers defeated Voldemort. Or if the crew of the Nostromo in Alien had been saved by a passing military vessel.

In all these cases, good would have triumphed over evil, and the heroes would be alive to tell their tale. But the endings wouldn’t have satisfied. We would’ve felt cheated. Why follow these characters through all their highs and lows when none of that matters at the end?

Heroes might not save the day on their own (and if part of their character growth is in trusting others, it might be important for them to receive help), but they definitely should have that moment of glory. This is what Luke did when he trusted the force and destroyed the Death Star, what Harry Potter did in defeating Voldemortm what Ripley did when she overcame her terror and sent the alien out into space.

If the hero doesn’t save the day, then they are only a side-character in someone else’s story.

 

A new way of reading ebooks

Developments in technology offer new ways of working, new ways of doing things. But often, these developments take time to become mainstream. Think of electric cars‌—‌Clive Sinclair’s C5 was widely derided, and failed commercially, but it arguably paved the way for the electric and hybrid vehicles that are becoming increasingly common now.

reading-1249273_1280Digital books, too, didn’t become mainstream instantly. Back before smart phones and laptops, ebooks were pdf files, and many people simply didn’t want to read whole books on a bulky computer screen. But new formats were developed, chiefly epub and mobi, and new devices appeared. When Amazon released Kindle, e-reading really took off. Now, with so many people owning smart-phones, ebooks can be downloaded and read through apps, and reading large amounts of text on screens has become relatively normal. And with the rise in popularity of audiobooks, another shift is occurring in the way people read (consume) books.

With the changes in technology, and the altering marketplace for ebooks, now companies are constantly appearing. Some of them carve out their own space (either geographically, like Kobo in Canada and Tolino in Germany, or through niche markets, like Overdrive with libraries), while others are either bought out (like Createspace) or simply disappear (and there have long been predictions that this will be the fate of Nook/Barnes & Noble).

Bubblin_lightOne new name I’ve recently become aware of is Bubblin, and they’re aiming to provide a different reading experience. Describing themselves as both ‘an online cafe for books’ and ‘Bandcamp of books, comics and magazines’, Bubblin is entirely web-based. Instead of downloading books and using an app or dedicated e-reader, readers using Bubblin simply click on a book and it appears in their web browser.

Bubblin doesn’t use epub or mobi, but has its own formatting system‌‌—‌and this is fixed-layout. This means that, rather than allowing the reader to adjust the text (size, colour, font and so on), what appears on the screen is very much like a physical book, with the text and images fixed in place (in many ways this is similar to pdf files).

Initially, I thought this was a mistake. Isn’t one of the major benefits of e-books the ability to control the appearance of text to suit individual preferences and needs? Why would a company return to fixed-layout formatting?

Then I remembered the ‘Bandcamp of books, comics and magazines’ line, and I understood.

There are many examples of written material that requires pages to look a certain way. Think of the layout of magazine pages, or the way frames in comics can be of different sizes, often with images and text breaking out of the boxes. Then there are text books that rely on images and charts to convey information.

LewisCarroll_MouseTail

And even with standard text books, there are times when fixed-layout formatting is important. Having pages that look like fascimiles of newspapers can add to the reading experience (as in John Fowles’ The Magus). Irvine Welsh’s Filth has some of the text obliterating other parts as a way of conveying how the main character is being ‘taken over’ by something inside. Poetry, too, often conveys information in the placing of words on the page (such as Lewis Carroll’s The Mouse’s Tale from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.) While words convey a lot of information, text positioning can add another subtle layer, and this can easily be lost in the usual flexible ebook formatting.

The web-based nature of Bubblin gives another advantage‌—‌as their formatting system is based around CSS and Java (I think), it is possible to include other media within books. Images can be animated, and videos can play on pages. I believe the books can incorporate audio too‌—‌which immediately makes me consider the possibility of read-along audiobooks.

However, using a totally web-based system brought a question to my mind‌—‌are people willing to read full books in web browsers? Personally, I’m fine with my Kindle.

But over the last year I’ve started using e-reader apps on my mobile more often. And a decade or so ago I wouldn’t have imagined reading a whole novel on any kind of screen. Even when I first got an e-reader (an old Sony thing), I thought I’d use it only for freely downloadable classics while still reading physical copies of more recent books. But now, I’ve gone fully electric in my reading.

People’s preferences and habits change over time. TV shows and films are commonly streamed now, as is music, so why not books? As mobiles increasingly become the go-to devices for digital media, web-based reading starts to make a lot of sense sense.

And I’ve decided that when I finish the book I’m reading at the moment, I’m going to try a whole novel through Bubblin.

Gatekeeper_smallI’m also giving Bubblin a try as a writer. The process of formatting books for them is (for someone with limited coding knowledge) fairly complex, but there’s a good chance this will become easier over time. After all, formatting epubs continues to grow easier, with tools like Vellum and Draft-2-Digital’s conversion service.

I managed to format my Dominions prologue, Gatekeeper, though‌—‌and you can have a look at it by clicking here. Creating this book involved a fair amount of back-and-forth with Bubblin, and I have to say that they’re very receptive to feedback, and are constantly tweaking things to improve the whole user experience.

Will Bubblin prove popular enough with readers? I hope so, because any competition to the big players in the ebook market has to be good, and Bubblin are offering something different.

Bubblin_darkHave a look for yourself‌—‌pop over to bubblin.io and browse a few books (there’s no sign-up or registration, and at the moment the vast majority of books are free). If you want to take a look at my Gatekeeper, click here. And if you have any thoughts on Bubblin, I’m pretty sure they’d love to hear your feedback.

What do you see when you read a book?

I read China Mieville’s The City And The City recently (I’m slowly chipping away at my ‘to-read’ list). I enjoy his writing style, and I think his world-building is fantastic (in many meanings of that word). But something strange happened as I read the book.

It’s written in first person, and I automatically pictured the narrator as female. I’ve no idea why, but even when it became clear that the character was male, I still saw him as female. I don’t think there was anything specific Mieville wrote that would make me picture his protagonist as anything but male, so I can only think this is down to how I approached the book.

And this got me thinking. When I read, I picture things in a certain way, but this isn’t necessarily how others picture the book, or even how the writer saw the story in his or her own head. Every reader is different, and we each bring our own unique perspectives to anything we read.

octopus-1235006_1280Stories (in books) pass from writers to readers through the medium of words, but there is always going to be interpretation involved in this. Writers aim to give as much action/emotion/description in as few words as possible. If everything was described in enough detail to convey every single aspect of the story, the action would move at a glacial pace, and all sense of forward momentum would be lost. Stories that describe too much are (for most readers) tiring to read‌—‌hence the search for conciseness. Gustave Flaubert talked about finding ‘le mot juste’, the right word.

But even that causes problems. Words mean different things to different people. I’ve heard the word ‘solid’ used to mean both good (as in ‘rock-solid’, firm and unmoving‌—‌a solid fellow) and difficult (as in ‘hard’‌—‌“that game’s well solid!”).

Think of that classic story opening; ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ That might conjure up thoughts of uncertainty, maybe even fear. But to some, storms can be exciting. Or maybe darkness helps others escape from their day-to-day troubles, and the addition of poor weather brings up thoughts of being beside a fire, enclosed in the safety and warmth of their very own home.

There is no perfect word. There is no ideal way to describe something.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily. One often-repeated piece of writing advice is to picture your ideal reader, and write to them. I believe Stephen King’s ‘ideal reader’ is his wife, and others might use real people too, but many create their own ideal reader (maybe a female forty-something divorced librarian living in Pittsburg, or a heavy metal fan working an office job but dreaming of becoming a professional musician). This might seem strange, but it is impossible to write a book that pleases everyone, and trying to make a story too universal usually means creating something bland, something that many find ‘okay’ but that nobody gets excited about. Anything designed to appeal to a wide range of people will fell watered-down.

Attitudes to books will naturally differ. Even if two readers enjoy the same book, it could well be for different reasons‌—‌some King fans might get a kick from the build-up of tension, and others might love the way he pulls them into the minds of his characters. Some people read Iain Banks’ sci-fi books for the vast ideas, others enjoy his way of telling a story.

There’s no right or wrong here. Every book is written by an individual (or a few individual in the case of co-written works), and the words are formed through the filter of their own lives. These books then get consumed by individual readers, who digest these words through the filter of their own experiences and ideas.

And this means that books are never static.

There’s this idea that, when something is created, it’s completed. In some ways, this is true‌—‌when a writer puts a book out, it stays the same unless they bring out a revised version. It’s the same with any art form‌—‌music, paintings, sculpture, films. But this ‘completed’ work can be digested by different people at different times. It can bring forth different emotions or lead to different thoughts. Every person who reads a book experiences something unique. And even re-reading a book can be a new experience.

people-2557508_640

As we grow, we develop, learning and understanding more, and our appreciation for things changes. The books we read ten, fifteen, thirty years ago might contain the same words in the same order that they did when we first picked them up, but if we re-read these words today we experience something totally different. Our interpretation is not only tinged with nostalgia, but also with our different perspective on life, our different personality. It’s part of the reason why books we loved as children can sometimes seem flat when we read them as adults, and why books we struggled to get into a few years ago can later become favourite reads full of meaning and excitement.

We never simply read words. We absorb them, run them through our experiences, our own unique thoughts. We take those marks on page or screen, and we breathe life into them.

The writer takes a story, moulds it, and lays its foundations on the page. But the reader brings it to life.

My reading challenge for 2019

Over 2018, I took part in the Goodreads reading challenge, setting myself a target of 50 books the year. As I generally get through one or two books a week, I knew this was easily achievable, and I ended up with 83 completed books by the end of December.

But what does that mean?

Loads of books!Looking back at the list, most of the titles are just names of books. I can’t recall what happened in many of the stories, and I only have a vague idea of my thoughts on them. Yes, some stick in my mind‌—‌I enjoyed Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, and I’m still impressed at how Barry Hutchison can produce such entertaining and well-written Space Team books at such a fast rate. Andy Weir’s Artemis was good (and, more importantly, was definitely different to The Martian, proving that his first book wasn’t a fluke), and I loved China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, both for the writing and the world-building. Way back at the start of the year I read Marcus Sakey’s Afterlife, and I recall being pleasantly surprised at the twists and turns in the story.

But the rest? Recollections of enjoying some, and maybe a few vague ideas regarding the actual stories, but generally not much else.

Of course, I don’t expect to remember everything I read, but I started thinking back to how I chose these books. Some were titles I specifically wanted to read (and this includes all the ones I’ve mentioned above), but for the others, I believe two factors were at the front of my mind, both influenced by this reading challenge. I chose many of the books over 2018 based on length and complexity. If I was vying between a few titles, I’d automatically lean toward shorter books as well as those that appeared easier.

checklist-1643784_640See, I chose books primarily because I wanted to complete the challenge, and it’s easier to read more books if they are shorter and not too taxing. I veered toward light reads that would only take a couple of days.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these types of books‌—‌reading fiction is primarily about entertainment, and I use it as a way of relaxing, so short periods of escapism are fine.

But a diet of only popcorn isn’t good. In between the lighter reads I should have been diving into more demanding works (like Perdido Street Station). As a writer, I should have used some of my reading to stretch my understanding of story and writing. As someone who reads, I should have sunk into at least a few texts that forced me to concentrate to a higher degree.

A number of years ago I told myself that I would read all of Honore de Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine (not in the original French, I hasten to add). This is a collection of about ninety titles, ranging from short stories to 500-page novels, and one thing I’ve found from the ones I’ve read is that the writing is dense. Paragraphs can stretch over many pages, and descriptions can be very detailed. There is a huge cast of characters who reappear in different titles, so keeping track of everyone is a challenge. They’re not easy reading.

I’m about a quarter of the way through, and I’ve found something to enjoy in each story. But I haven’t read any Balzac for a couple of years now. Especially over 2018, I’ve been distracted by shorter, lighter books.

This needs to change.

I have a growing list of other books I want to read, and other authors who I want to explore. There’s Brandon Sanderson’s long books (I was very impressed with the first Mistborn book, and promised myself I’d read more), and more by Joe Abercrombie. I have a number of Peter F Hamilton books on my Kindle. A few years ago I downloaded tons of out-of-copyright classics, and there are many of these that I feel I should read, including Jane Austen (I tried once, but never got more than a few pages in.)

literature-3324024_1280So, for 2019, I have a new reading challenge. Yes, I’m still going to read light, fun stuff (I’ve started the year with Ben Aabronovitch and Mark Dawson‌—‌both fine writers who produce great escapism for the reader), but I’m also going to push myself. I’m not going to treat books as a tick-list to get through. I’m going to give myself the time each book deserves.

I’ve still set a Goodreads challenge, though (again for fifty books), but I’ve done this as a means of keeping track of what I’ve read. I could use a simple list or spreadsheet, but Goodreads displays the covers of books I’ve read, which makes looking back far easier.

I’m confident I’ll reach fifty books again, but this year it will include a wider range. This year, I’m going to read like I mean it.

 

A small change to my reading habits

Habits build up over time, often without conscious thought. I like to read before I go to sleep, but I also read at other times. Most recently, this has included a decent length of time when I get in from work (grab a bite to eat and a drink, and sit down with a book for a good half-hour or more), as well as ten minutes while eating breakfast. I sometimes get more time in during the day, but that depends on what else is happening, and the three times mentioned above (breakfast, after work, before sleep) are pretty regular.

kindle-2616647_1280A few weeks back, I started reading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, but straight away I ran into a problem‌—‌the chapters were too long.

This needs an explanation.

I’ve never felt comfortable stopping reading just anywhere. I always aim to finish a chapter, or at least to reach a section break. Stopping mid-flow feels wrong. In a well-written book, the chapters and sections are part of the structure of the story‌—‌the writer chose to change scene, or to provide a break, for a particular reason. I can recall hearing Brandon Sanderson (I think it was on his Writing Excuses podcast) talking about wanting the reader to take a break at the end of each chapter‌—‌each chapter is it’s own mini-story, and needs to be assimilated before continuing to the next mini-story.

In the same way, I don’t enjoy watching films in sections either, or listening to only part of a piece of music. I need to experience the work as the creator intended.

So when I started The Blade Itself (The First Law Book One), I knew I’d want to give each chapter the time it deserved. This wasn’t a problem when reading before sleep‌—‌I had some flexibility in this. Likewise, after work, I could continue reading until I’d reached the end of a chapter.

But over breakfast, my time is limited‌—‌I have to be out of the house by a certain time in order to get to work. I wouldn’t have time to necessarily read complete chapters.

One of the things I love about my Kindle is how it tells me how many minutes reading is left in each chapter, and I could’ve used this. I could have made sure that when I stopped reading at night, I did so with a shorter chapter coming up, one that I could get through in ten minutes‌—‌but what if I was in the midst of some very long chapters? I could have pushed through the chapter in the morning, skim-reading‌—‌but I wanted to enjoy these books, and that included the writing itself. I could have simply read in the hope that a scene-break would appear at a sensible time‌—‌but what if it didn’t?

Then I found my solution.

I don’t only read fiction. Since starting writing, I’ve been reading more and more books about writing‌—‌the craft itself, marketing, mindset, and anything else related to publishing. These books often have some kind of narrative flow, but that’s secondary to the information. Also, non-fiction tends to be written in shorter, easily-digestible chunks‌—‌ideal for reading when you only have a few minutes spare.

You can probably see where this is going.

I now have two books on the go at any one time. I read fiction when I have longer stretches of time, enabling me to immerse myself in the story as the writer intended. But I also have a non-fiction book on the go at the same time. I use my phone for these books (either using the Kindle app or a pdf reader, as some of these books I only have in that format), which has another advantage‌—‌if I have a spare couple of minutes (for instance, if I’m waiting to pick one of the kids up from an activity) I can consume another short section of non-fiction.

It’s only a small alteration to how I read, but I can see the advantages already. I won’t be as ready to put longer-chapter books aside for ‘later’ (so I’ll finally get round to all those Brandon Sanderson books sitting on my to-be-read list), and I’ll also be getting a little bit of ‘learning’ in each day from the non-fiction.

Always good to find a win-win solution!

The Importance of Reading Part 4: Living Other Lives

 

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?

Wrong.

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.)

human-1602493_1280When 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.

man-1461448_1280Joe 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.


Previous posts in this series are:

Part 3 : Imagination

Part 2: Concentrate!

Part 1: Slow Down