“A good book is an event in my life”, said the French novelist Stendhal in his novel, ‘The Red and the Black’, from 1830. It is not required of someone to come up with a logical argument for why he or she does not read; one may just be lazy enough to avoid reading literature, or give priority to some other activity. The book is the ‘monarch of knowledge and entertainment’ since the beginning of writing in the human civilization. But with the advancement of technology it is being overthrown, or at last challenged, by digital media in recent decades. Many would not go through the painstaking process of reading words where you can get entertained or be informed passively by watching movies and documentaries, without doing almost anything.
I am not saying that reading literature is better than watching films or documentaries, except that they are overlapping but very separate modes of entertainment and knowledge. Rather I am writing this article to bring forth the argument for the increasingly less common tradition of reading literature. I should mention that by literature I mean all those written works that have some artistic or informative value to them. Reading is not advocated just because it was a tradition before. Practicing racism was a tradition, too. Reading, though, was a positive exercise which we should keep up. To read a book can be an activity or event that can drastically influence our perception of existence and in so many other ways.
It is in human nature to be remembered after someone has passed on. When people lived in caves, they painted or wrote on the walls of the cave, and their messages lived beyond the person’s life time. Only a tiny percentage of humans have preserved their thoughts on pages, canvases and walls. The rest’s ideas may have lived in oral traditions, but often, that is less accurate.
The contemporary British street artist Banksy says in a quote: ‘’I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and the second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time’’.
These books are the echoes of our ancestors’ voices who attempted to tell us about who they were. Unfortunately, these echoes are fading away, bit by bit, as we develop habits of spending our time on news and everyday issues. Without literature, there would be no Socrates, Plato, Aristotle or any other intellectual personality. With our current tendencies towards reading less literature, we would die anonymously without contributing much to the world. Yet, those ancient philosophers, artists, scientists, and thinkers who died thousands of years ago, at least they would live forever – well, depending on the depth and relevance of their contributions.
Reading literature is a major source of learning. Besides, it is our first or secondary sensory experience, not only of the past and present, but in many ways of the future as well. The past can be said to be the torch that guides us in the present and can shed light on an unknown and unpredictable future. Those nations and civilizations which accumulated knowledge well, and learnt from it, have an advantage over others. They know more about the mistakes committed by their forefathers, things that turned into chaos on the one hand, and on the other hand, things that brought them prosperity and happiness.
In our time, the enormous number of books has information that can teach and enlighten us on whatever subject we can think of. Therefore, every individual or group who wants to accomplish some goals can learn from the past, from all the knowledge that is available. We do not have to waste time and energy on ‘inventing the wheel over and over again’. For example, we know that smoking causes cancer. Sufficient research has already been conducted on the topic and is documented. So, we can continue from where people before us left.
Reading literature for the purpose of enjoyment is also important. Novels, poems, dramas, and so on take us on journeys to places, yes, worlds, we have never seen or will ever be able to see firsthand. These worlds are created by novelist, poets and dramatists in their heads, and their choices of words have the power to ‘transport’ us to these worlds, as Longinus has said.
This reminds me of Virtual Reality (VR) technology where we put on a headset and virtually go and catch sight of anything we desire. Everybody who puts on the headset will see the same image but a single novel read by two readers would experience different versions of the imaginary world. This is for the reason that a writer creates an image by describing many details, but not all. As a reader, each of us must contribute, too, resulting in many versions or experiences of the same novel. Besides, from my personal experience, I think I can recall more scenes and aspects from a novel than a movie I watched. This might be for the reason that I actively contributed to making more details in my own mind.
Reading literature should not be taken as a boring and outdated activity where you sit still, starring into the pages of the book. It is an activity that saves us time and energy, that informs us on topics we desire to know about and entertains us by letting us momentarily escape the actual time and place where we are. The story never quite ends when we close the book and place it in the shelf. It may have inspired us and taught us lessons that we continue exploring. We usually know that after having read a book, we come out with some more knowledge than we had before. We may not always have become a better person, but even that can happen. Words and literature can change the world!