Many moons ago, I took a class on existential philosophy. Like most philosophers, our professor was a great watcher (notice I didn’t say admirer) of human behaviour. It’s kind of what we do. Being an existentialist, he was also a great lover of fiction. Philosophers of this persuasion tend to at least dabble in it, for better or for worse. It was the opinion of this instructor that it was pretty darn hard to be a sociopath and a fiction lover at the same time. To read stories, he explained, was to get a glimpse into other minds and other lives, to gain some understanding of what it was like to be another being. That’s not to say that sociopaths are illiterate, or that a trip to the library is a guaranteed cure for this kind of disconnect. However, if a person had any inclination at all towards being empathetic, a good book would at least give him or her the opportunity to try.
The idea stuck with me and I find myself talking about it often. I admit, being a writer and a literary geek, I’m a little biased. Yes, I want people to read as much as possible, both because I think it’s cool and because I’d like people to support my industry. However, personal interests aside, I still think there’s merit to the notion that reading and cultivating a love of stories makes us better people in some way.
Before you call me a snob or an elitist, I need to tell you that I get that reading is a luxury of time that others can’t always afford. A lot of my adventures into novels happen in five to ten minute bursts, often scrounged together before I fall asleep. I drop books on my face all the time as I doze off. I also get that reading is difficult and frustrating for some. To this, I say that reading anything counts, whether it be a comic book, a graphic novel, a tabloid at the supermarket, or quick few pages in a magazine. Fiction happens in a lot of different forms, especially now that we’re nostril-deep in the digital age. If you hate Shakespeare, don’t read Shakespeare (but please don’t dis him with me in earshot or you’ll break my heart a little).
The wise words of my prof come to mind a lot these days, as there’s constant chatter about this public figure or that celebrity being disconnected from the rest of humanity. We hear things like “How could they possibly think that was okay?” Maybe we’re feeling generally adrift from one another, and a little scared at what that might encourage. Perhaps we’re no longer afraid to call it as we see it, to tell someone they’re a little bit of a psycho when they act like one. I’m not going to name names here, but there are times (a lot of times) when I want to leave a bag of paperbacks on someone’s doorstep and test the theory. I need to know if big meanies didn’t get enough bedtime stories as children. I want to see if getting into the right novel can actually be life-changing. I’d like to hear if other people finish a book and then suddenly see the characters mirrored in people they see on the street. What gaping personal and cultural caverns can we bridge by reading each other’s stories?
If we could demonstrate that all of these things actually happen, that there is some sort of documented cause and effect relationship between reading fiction and reading fellow human beings, what would we do with this information? Would we stop seeing stories as a luxury and start seeing them as a necessity? Would we see storytelling in all its form as a career, instead of a hobby? Would we take advantage of the new media and new technology available to us to start telling stories in new and amazing ways, so that we could reach as many readers as possible? Could metaphor be officially recognized as medicine, the way it was thousands of years ago?
Food for thought.