The Day Reading Died
I still remember it.
It was an ordinary Saturday in the eighth grade. I’d spent the day hanging upside-down off the couch, reading novels.
For some reason, there was an awkward silence over dinner that night. My father looked at me for a long while and then spoke…
“Son, don’t you think it’s time you stopped reading fiction?”
Even now, I remember those words with a dull ache in my chest.
Books were a beautiful thing, my only source of joy in a gray world I did not understand — a world full of bullies where I ate lunch alone. Suddenly, books and stories were no longer acceptable. The real world was waiting.
It was time, time to become useful.
To this day, I’m not cured.
Whenever I try to read a novel, there’s a voice that whispers, “Hey Charles, don’t you think it’s time you started reading something useful?”
I understand my parents good intentions, though. They grew up in communist China. There wasn’t a lot to eat. When you come to America, you want your kids to have a good, stable life.
In real life, it seems, there’s no room for stories.
It helps, though, to know I’m not alone. Simon Leys writes of the Polar explorer Mawson in The Hall of Uselessness:
“Men of action — people who are totally involved in tackling what they believe to be real life — tend to dismiss poetry and all forms of creative writing as a frivolous distraction. Our great Polar explorer Mawson wrote in a letter to his wife some instructions concerning their children’s education. He insisted that they should not waste their time reading novels, but should instead acquire factual information from books of history and biography.”
Is Mawson “right”? Are history and biography all we should have our children reading?
First, another story…
A Sack of Meat and Bones
A few years ago, when I was first discovering the wonders of philosophy, I was delighted to discover the existence of a meetup in Thailand titled “The Socrates Cafe.”
When I attended, though, I was disappointed to find that nobody seemed to be doing any philosophy at all.
Rather than exchange ideas or attempt to understand others, the purpose of the event was to allow attendees to congratulate one another on their superiority in recognizing that the Earth was indeed billions of years old (and not the “irrational” 6,000 years).
Later that night (I was still confused as to how such an event ended up named after Socrates) the discussion turned to death.
One young man quipped,
“Why respect the dead? They’re dead. Just skin and bones and stuff. Let’s be RATIONAL. We could free up those graves for buildings and roads — for the future.”
When I heard him say that, I got that feeling again, the same feeling that when my parents told me it was time to stop reading and do something useful.
And again, I couldn’t find the words... All I managed was a mumbled, “That’s not the whole story.”
Maybe today I can do better.
Hey Buddy, What is Rational?
Is it truly “rational” to assume that a body is just skin and bones? After your grandmother dies, is she really just a sack of organic matter that we can incinerate and sweep casually into a dustbin?
This seems like an incomplete, and overly simplified, way of looking of looking at the world. Just because our minds (more “sacks of meat”) cannot grasp the merits of something, does not mean that the merits do not exist.
If your grandmother is attached to a medical machine at the hospital, you do not remove a few screws because, “They don’t look like they do anything.”
Perhaps the young man at Socrates Cafe did not realize that taking the time to burn incense or kneel down before a grave helps us to remember, appreciate and respect the dead.
And perhaps the young man missed that when humanity ceases to respect the dead, something happens. Something not so good.
But let us return to the subject of books.
Were those hours I spent under the covers with a flashlight, sneaking pages of Harry Potter, Gulliver’s Travels, Oliver Twist and the Dragonlance Chronicles really, truly wasted?
And what of the useless “stories” that my English teachers told me in school? What of Mr. Pollard’s story of how, each December, he would trudge through the snow to offer handwritten cards to the local postal workers and garbage collectors? Was that nothing too?
I’ve long forgotten the formula for a cylinder’s volume or how to transpose a matrix. For some reason, the stories remain.
A Sack of Bones
Now, let us move from Mawson (the guy who didn’t want his kids reading fiction) to another polar explorer — Sir Shackleton.
Sir Shackleton’s gravestone, which sits on a useless sack of bones buried in Grytviken, South Georgia (population of 20, according to Google), carries the following inscription:
“I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize.” -Robert Browning
Shackleton had a fondness for Browning’s poems, and Leys shares a powerful story, again in The Hall of Uselessness:
“In the darkest depth of disaster, when all members of his expedition had to discard every piece of superfluous luggage, [Shackleton] refused to abandon his beloved copy of Browning’s collected poems.”
What was it that made Shackleton value a book of poems, the ultimate useless item, over the critical essentials for life?
Sometimes I look at these things I was raised to chase — wealth, status, security— and I think, “So what? What’s it all for?” Perhaps Shackleton got the “essentials” right after all.
Years later, on the eve of his death, Shackleton would scribble the following (his last words) into the pages of his diary:
“In the darkening twilight I saw a lone star hover
Gem-like above the bay.”
What I feel when I read these words…
Is that useless too?