by Amy Galea
I had reached the point recently, where I’d gorged myself silly on Netflix dramas, 90’s Rom Coms and re- watching episodes of GIRLS, and was hit with the fat realisation that I hadn’t read a novel for personal enjoyment, in many months.
Due to the relative busyness of my life, down time often resulted in me lying sprawled out on my bed in a semi-comatose state. I was drawn to relaxation via television because it did all of my thinking for me.
Every so often you will hear that tangible, hard cover books have lost their sex appeal. That due to the internet and our quest for easily and quickly consumable entertainment, bookshops and libraries will be left as vacuous as our local Video Ezy. Even if most books do end up as electronic versions of their former selves, fiction remains important because story telling is unique to our species. But something else happens when we read: as each story unfolds, we paint their scenes with colour and dictate their sound.
Johnathan Safran Foer once said that he was convinced that novels are the most intimate art form, capable of inspiring the deepest emotional experience. This is because as readers we instinctively personalise them:
“When a tree is in a film everyone in the theatre sees the same tree. There is room for interpretation, but a severely limited amount. When you read those four tiny letters in a book: t-r-e-e, every reader conjours a different image– the weeping willow in front of your childhood home, the elm you pass every day on your way to work, the maple that you fell from after having climbed too high. We might appreciate the direction of a film but every book is co-authored. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “A reader is to a book as an orchestra is to sheet music.”
Can we just stop and consider how crazy that is for just a second? That as we go through the pages of a story our minds bring into being each of the scenes. Only, the images I attach to certain words are different to the images that you attach to those same words. And both of our images would contrast to what your uncle, or yoga teacher, or even what the wise ol’ Bill Murray would attach to them. Our life experiences differ and our influences come from places we might not even be conscious of. It struck me recently, that before 2001, people around the world had different ideas of what Harry, Hermione and Ron looked like, but then the films came out and we were told the details of their face, the exact pitch of their voice. For most of us Miss Granger will always be a young Emma Watson.
Neil Gaiman’s lecture for the Reading Agency, entitled: “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming”, appeared in The Guardian last October. His impassioned plea for the protection of libraries and the reading of fiction, notes that as the world is ‘slipping’ onto the web— literacy is more important now than ever before. But more than that: literate people turn to fiction, and fiction teaches us to be imaginative and empathetic members of society.
“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and the people in it and look out through other eyes.”
The benefits of reading fiction don’t simply lie in the ability to create alongside the authors we are reading. From our first days of reading about characters that are not ourselves, we learn empathy. As Atticus Finch says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Or as Gaiman says, “You learn that everyone else out there is a ‘me’, as well.” It is because of this, that authors, especially authors of children’s books, have a great responsibility:
“it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all.”
Once you’ve been in a great new world and you’ve seen this world from another’s perspective, you are going to be slightly changed. Which is why reading as a child has such an impact on us, teaching us to feel for others, demonstrating for us the causal effect that selfish and evil actions can have. Gaiman makes the point that although reading shapes us— the aim is never to use the fictional narrative as a parabolic form of preaching to children:
“And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.
We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we’ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.”
Many of us remember what it’s like to grasp onto a book series so tight that no comment from any Grown Up Person about how our novels were not ‘proper literature’ could ever diminish our love for those books. And for me it was The Babysitters Club that propelled my love for reading (thank you Ann M. Martin). For the girls I teach now it’s Harry, or Katniss, or reading about two teenage cancer patients who fall in love. These texts might not make up the literary cannon, and they might not even stay around for future generations, but they create a thirst for story reading and consequently story creation, that, to make a fine point of it: our future depends on.
At the closing of his address, Gaiman quotes Einstein:
“Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.”
It’s about protecting that action: of sitting down, opening up to the page you left off and reading all of the made- up things that unveil some of the truest things about who you (we, all of us) are.
Image via The Backstage Rider.