Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Virtues of Reading

Patti Abbott has a knack for prompting discussions through her blog and Facebook. Last Monday this appeared on Facebook:

A depressing story on NPR about kids reading books. Most do not read for pleasure despite books like The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter books.

Brainstorm: how can we get kids to read more? 

Several suggestions followed, all with merit. Then John McFetridge, who’s building a reputation based on not looking at things quite the same way as others, posted this:

Is there some reason why reading books for pleasure is better than doing anything else for pleasure?

Instant tangent in my thoughts. The discussion proceeded—my suggestion included—as if the answer to this question was self-evident. Intelligence is knowing the right answers; John showed how wisdom lies in asking the right questions.

Let’s start with my belief that reading is, by far, the most important thing a person can learn. If schools do nothing else, they should create good readers. (Why they do not is another discussion.) Not because people should read for pleasure, but because good readers can learn just about anything they want, with minimal outside assistance, if they can read well enough, and know how to use reference materials. The ability to teach through media other than direct interaction is what differentiates humans from the rest of life on this planet, and we abuse the opportunity as if it had no value.

That’s a strictly educational perspective. John’s question remains: Is reading for pleasure somehow a more noble action than doing something else for pleasure? There are few things I enjoy as much as reading; large chunks of my annual summer staycation are eagerly anticipated as reading time. I find time to read at least sixty books a year in the cracks between a full-time job, my own writing, family responsibilities, and other activities. Reading for pleasure can take me outside myself and my personal experiences—how much I have learned about differing perspectives and human nature in my recreational reading cannot be measured—yet it’s rare I can hold myself to a continuous session with the same level of concentration I can find for baseball. A couple of weeks ago I spent nine hours watching the Pirates lose a rain-delayed doubleheader in Baltimore, and was never bored. Not for a second. I’m not going to wax rhapsodic about the pastoral virtues of baseball; most of that is bullshit. There is something about the game that resonates with me in a way no other activity does; I can always watch a ball game. Doesn’t matter if it’s major league, minor league, or a sandlot game I pass by with time on my hands. Would that time be better spent reading?

It depends. No activity is what we need for every minute of every day. Some days we need recharged, some days we need elevated, some days we need to level out. This is one of the virtues in reading for pleasure: there are as many different kinds of things to read as there human psychic needs. The variety is almost limitless.

Reading’s primary virtue may be how it allows us to focus while still multitasking. Well-written fiction can be read purely for pleasure, but can one read and enjoy a book such as Les Edgerton’s The Bitch and not at some level learn there’s more to habitual offender statutes than we at first thought? I knew a large part of the Thai economy was based on sex, but had no idea of the effects of that, and the Thai people’s attitudes toward it, before I read John Burdette and then, in more detail, Tim Hallinan. No one who reads John McFetridge can think of Canada as that bland, frozen country to the north, any more than Florida development can be viewed the same way after reading Carl Hiaasen. Adrian McKinty’s Troubles Trilogy gave me a peek into Northern Irish living in the 80s without risking life and limb. Reading for pleasure provides opportunities for covert education and enlightenment rarely found elsewhere.

So, yeah, I think reading for pleasure is, in many ways, better than doing a lot of other things for pleasure, though it’s not a universal truth. It’s easy for those of us who base so much of our lives around reading and writing to think so. Too much reading can make it easy to remove oneself from the real world and those in it. It’s a great escape, but a reading addiction can be as harmful in its way as a drug dependency. My father keeps up with newspapers and magazines; his “leisure” time is spent working in his yard, and in his wood shop. I may be expanding my sensibilities, but he actually creates something, which too many of us who live largely intellectual lives value too little.

Back to John’s question: Is there some reason why reading books for pleasure is better than doing anything else for pleasure? Yes, there are several, but they are all time- and need-specific. Even avid readers need other outlets for pleasurable activities that recharge their souls in different ways.

Play ball.

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