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Do you read to escape…or for something else?

By on Friday, Mar 15, 2013 in Pondering the meaning of books | 10 comments

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Author David Shields got his new book How Literature Saved My Life written up last month in the New York Times Book Review. It’s a memoir that discusses the reading and writing life of a distinguished man considered to be a genre-breaking author (see http://davidshields.com/).

If interested, you can read the review here:   http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/books/review/how-literature-saved-my-life-by-david-shields.html?_r=0

The reviewer, Mark O’Connell, quotes this passage from the book (It’s a passage I can’t stop thinking about):

Acutely aware of our mortal condition, I find books that simply allow us to escape existence a staggering waste of time (literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it).” 

At first, I dismissed this comment, thinking that many a time I pick up a book  to escape my worries and concerns, i.e., I unabashedly use books as therapy.  In fact, especially the books I read at night tend to be lighter, funnier, and more reality-escaping than what I read at other times because I enjoy sleeping instead of staying up worrying about my problems (and everyone else’s).

But this phrase kept coming back to me.  Is there something wrong with me? Do I not try to eek out all the traces of life lessons, self-revelations, and insights about the human condition that books contain? Am I reading the wrong books–maybe I need ones with more despair and existential crisis that end badly and in much pain. (Okay, just kidding, but I couldn’t resist poking a little fun at literary fiction.)

Well, maybe I do eek out traces of life lessons of books–all the time. Actually, maybe we all do, just not to the urgent and intellectual extent Mr. Shields seems to. Maybe it actually happens as we enjoy the story.

We read for connection to other human beings–do you think? What are they always telling us in writing workshops–make your characters relatable. Give them a complex array of traits and flaws so that your reader immediately identifies with them. Take the reader on the journey as your character faces her worst fears, challenges her world view, and changes–works to overcome obstacles in her life that make her a better person.

This is why I read, especially romance. I love the journey. I love the hope that we can change our faults,  can learn to see that our weaknesses and flaws aren’t boulders that can never be moved, and I love that love–connection with other people–is the one thing that matters in our very mortal existence.

So this ain’t highbrow, but I truly believe that no book we truly enjoy is ever a means of just blanking out our existence. We’re searching for something–connection, encouragement, reassurance that this journey we’re  all on does mean something–that our life means something–and we’re searching for wisdom to make it the most we can.      

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