Conversation at polite dinner parties is constrained by an implicit set of rules. No talking religion, no talking politics and no talking sex. In the future, I might have to strike another category off the safe topics list: books.
At a recent dinner party for a friend’s 40th birthday, I mentioned to a fellow guest that I liked to read (a massive understatement to disguise my obsessive love of books). “I don’t read fiction. I think it’s a waste of time,” she answered.
“I really like them,” I squeaked, before moving my attention swiftly to my pinot.
Since then, like a child might rehearse retorts well after they have been challenged in the schoolyard, I wondered what I should have said to adequately reveal how fiercely I disagreed. I wanted to convey all that I believe reading is and can be, between mouthfuls of roast pork.
But, although I was viscerally irritated by the comment, I have to admit that her sentiment was one which has occurred to me at times. And I hate to say that it is not without its merit. After all, why spend all that time reading something that has been made up? Perhaps it would be far better to spend time learning any number of skills, from coding to languages, or playing the stock market. At least then I’d be learning something concrete and practical to show for my time.
Instead, all I have is the allusive and personal knowledge that reading has provided me; hardly beneficial in the cold, hard world of mortgages, measurable achievement and almost universal busy-ness.
One reason that is commonly cited for the value of reading is its ability to enhance the ability to empathise. Few would argue that empathy is a bad thing, as it arms people with an understanding of others, presumably shaping the way we interact. But its value is not above question.
In an ABC radio debate about the value of literary, as opposed to popular fiction, a few weeks ago, a panellist questioned the notion of whether empathy was something worth striving for at all. He believed that compassion was far more important and played a greater role in creating a more moral society. Yale professor Paul Bloom agreed, saying “In the moral domain…empathy leads us astray.” He goes on, “We are much better off if we give up on empathy and become rational deliberators motivated by compassion and care for others.”
Another well-known benefit of reading is its impact on literacy. Naturally, high levels of literacy are positive and can create opportunities, enhance communication and improve people’s lives. But, sometimes I wonder whether literacy skills are all that important anymore. Judging by the everyman, present in the comments posted on high profile news sites, I begin to question the assumption that literacy matters at all.
Scrolling through the comments on an article that interested me recently, there was not a correct ‘there’ in sight. Commenters were extremely confused about the difference between ‘where’ and ‘were’ and I have some idea of what the writer meant when he described the perpetrators of a crime as ‘basteds’. At least to these commenters, literacy is clearly no big deal. As long as spellcheck can sort out most problems, and readers can get the general idea, literacy can look after itself. However, I do wonder whether the observance of some grammatical rules might strengthen their arguments.
No, for me, reading is not just about empathy and literacy, although I enjoy those benefits every day in my work and relationships. I read because of the way it makes my world a bigger, more complex and exciting one. It rounds out the corners that I could not otherwise know or understand, providing me with a vista that is wide in its sweep and vast in its depths.
While I have a relatively full life, or at least a busy one, it is limited by many factors, including geography, culture, my own personality and socio economic factors. However, in reading, my experience is unlimited. I can read about the past, the future, those who live in great wealth or poverty, nearby or on the other side of the globe.
As writer George Martin said, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies … The man who never reads lives only one.”
In this short lifetime, I want to see, know and experience more than is physically possible. And books are civilisation’s great depositories of experience, handing down knowledge that it is impossible to procure in one person’s daily life, here and now.
Recently, a friend told me that it was possible for students to get to Year 11 without learning a thing about the Holocaust. For readers, this would be almost impossible. From All the Light We Cannot See to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Primo Levi to Anne Frank, books about the Second World War provide not just a history, but also an intimate view of world events. More recently, fiction has explored the events of September 11, including The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Falling Man and Saturday. The world’s events are experienced, digested and articulated, from different angles, exposing different elements of the picture.
And so, even if I am not generating wealth or practising a new skill, exercising my body or cleaning the house, by reading fiction I am living a life richer and more complex than it would otherwise have been, informing my actions of today and the future.
Oscar Wilde spoke of the formative nature of fiction when he said, “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”
And in a way, while some consider reading a waste of time, this ability of books to transform our perspectives and actions can in fact contribute in different ways to our practical, assessable and benchmark-able achievement. I believe the broad understanding of the world and the human condition that fiction offers makes better leaders, innovators and diplomats. It might counteract the flaws inherent in the assessment-orientated learning that students receive – helping students think outside the box, in more creative ways.
But most importantly, for me, reading is a joy. It simply makes my life better. And so, I don’t care if I some consider sitting with a book a waste of time, because it gives me what so many strive to achieve: happiness. And even if that was all, that would be enough.