In sixth grade I was tapped by teachers to receive an award for excellence in studentship. As reward, I was trucked down to the local newspaper and told to bring along a prop of one of my favorite activities. I brought books. Books and books and books – a stack that rose higher than my pre-pubescent, chubby face when I held them in front of me. And that’s just how my image appeared in the paper. When asked why I liked to read, I replied, “reading takes me to a different place, away from where I actually am.” Needless to say, the article did not improve my social status at school.
Today I still read, transporting myself from a cluttered closet New York City apartment; sometimes it’s to Poe’s House of Usher, where a demented man’s quivering laughter echoes the halls, and sometimes it’s to any of a hundred different humorous, terrifying, mysterious locales. Currently, I’m huddled in another messy room; this one is Ignatius J. Reilly’s, in a run-down ghetto street of Nawleans (courtesy of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces). The weather is quite nicer here than in the Big Apple.
I can be slightly more articulate today as to how each book “takes me to a different place”, but the recorded statement from my youth remains pretty wise. The writer in me squirms every time I notice a turn of phrase or scene that crushes my very best prose like an ant underfoot, easily; the editor in me studies, awed, every intense change of tense. On the whole, I strive to withdraw every ounce of knowledge I can find in a great writer’s prose. I relish, too, a relaxing hour of enjoyment where I can still lose myself in a universe that, for the moment, doesn’t include me.
Great books are being read less and less by men, and that’s a shame. Literature is not just an escape from the everyday: it’s a lens that projects foreign ideas onto ourselves. A great book informs, invokes thought and changes the way we view our day. It can be shared; and it can reveal things about the self that were previously hidden in murky unthought. In fact, it’s hard to find a more effective form of being taught by learned, well-educated or inspiring people — barring TED talks and a quiet chat with your old man. Lucky for you, the masses of incredible, controversial and even dubious writers have left behind their legacy. It’s an arsenal that we’re foolish to ignore.
The key to it all, from what I can figure, is reading what you enjoy and taking what you can from characters and authors who demonstrate, in one way or another, what you want to be (or those who are your foil, making major mistakes that you want to steer clear of). You no longer have to go to class and report on reading assignments — unpleasant experiences are no longer being forced upon you (by yourself or that arrogant bastard who gave you a C-). Reading can be an entirely personal experience; no more unsettling grades for you, Mr. Sparknotes.
Another problem, and one just as daunting, is finding a truly great book in a literal (ahem) galaxy of impressive bindings. Try as you might, Brontë or Shakespeare or Hemingway may not even work for you, and that’s not as mortal a sin as some literary prick might tell you. The importance is understanding why, and learning — always learning — from what you love and what you utterly don’t. Don’t! Shout to the rooftops why Poe is preposterous. Spur healthy debate. Bolster your own arguments, back them up with first-hand evidence (nothing worse than a hater who hasn’t actually read) — yet still, don’t be afraid to change your mind. Most of the greats didn’t produce one hit wonders.
So what do I do? I find the author who makes me smile with a turn of phrase, or a clever dialogue moment, or a plot twist that I truly never saw coming. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t guide you with a stern hand toward Roald Dahl for some of the juiciest turns-in-tale ever written, which give me a thrill on my 10th read just as much as they did my first time around.) The author created that moment for me, the treasured reader, to experience. He or she fought spurts of despair, dug deep within his or her own life and experiences, re-wrote and revised, cursed unhealthily and did it all again — just to unearth that group of markings on a page. And once you find yourself there, truly appreciating a person that you’ve never met, in a fictional or non-fictional setting that exists only on the page in front of you, that little tumble of text can and will change your life, whether in hardly noticeable grins, or thought-provoking miles of introspective growth. Turn the page.– Chris Wright
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