Reading is priceless. Books can take you anywhere – to new lands or new planets, in the past, present, or future. You can experience more adventures than possible in real life alone. Try sailing the seven seas, or exploring the center of the earth, or navigating the intricacies of Martian society. Conjure up spells, ferret out unknown truths, or simply discover our own historical past.
I have run into variations on this idea countless times. Every time someone is extolling the virtues of books, something like the above quote will come out. Recently I heard it again in the movie Inkheart. (A great movie. See it.)
I too am a lover of books, and of reading. But I shudder every time I hear books beatified in this way. It seems escapist, overly entertainment-oriented, and artsy-fartsy, all at the same time. The purpose of reading isn’t so you can get away and have fun in la-la land. These things are secondary to the real purpose of reading. There is much more value in reading than travelling and having fun experiences.
- From Frodo (Lord of the Rings) I learned the importance of diligence and a sense of mission.
- From Ben Franklin I learned how far a person can go when given so little in life.
- From John Grisham I learned the importance of being able to spin a good yarn. And the futility of trying to live outside the law.
- From John Carter (A Princess of Mars) I learned the value of superhuman strength and devastatingly good looks.
- From Hester Prynne and Arther Dimmesdale (The Scarlet Letter) I learned the importance of staying within sexual norms.
- From Mr. Wickham (Pride and Prejudice) I learned the value of social skills and norms and the danger inherent in transgressing them.
- From Edmond Dantes (The Count of Monte Cristo) I learned how gratifying revenge can be, and how hollow.
- From Jason Stevens (The Ultimate Gift) I learned that it’s not about me. Nothing is about me. And the sooner I can grasp that truth, the easier things will go for me.
- From Stephen King I learned the value of following my imagination where ever it leads.
- From Laura Ingalls Wilder I learned the vital importance of a strong family surrounding me, and the value of providing a strong family to surround my kids.
I could go on, but I hope my point is starting to emerge. The value of reading is not in travelling to exotic lands. The value in reading is how the story affects me. How am I different – better even – for having read that story? I have lived the lives of many people, just in the short amount of reading I’ve done. I’ve learned something from all these lives, and I can apply these things to my own situation.
In short, I am a better person (I hope) because of the experiences in these books. I do not have to make all the mistakes these characters have made, because, in a sense, I have already made them. I can see the damage those mistakes have caused. I can see the immediate and future effects of decisions those characters have made, and I can use that knowledge when I come to a similar decision point in my own life.
The fact that I got to travel to exotic lands is just icing on the cake.
This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2009, edition of the Greenhorn Valley View.