Jun 052011

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Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade, Newtown...

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To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.
A. C. Grayling

There is hardly any activity that you can both perform on your own and alone, yet simultaneously share the experience with someone else. Paradoxical reading is. Books have been likened to many things, not least a good friend. And indeed a good book is at least as good a friend, but perhaps even more. Reading a well-written book takes you on journeys across the ages and worlds. But that’s not the real magic of books or reading. The magic is in seeing the world anew. Seeing the world from the eyes of a complete stranger… or may be an old and dear friend. For a good book is well worth returning to and reading over and over.

I’ll say it here; one of the dreams that I wish to realize at old(er) age is, having read all the books I wished to read, to reread my favorites. There would be very little to compete with that personal joy of mine but to have all the books I loved to read the first time, to read over again. Like revisiting your childhood playground, like planing a reunion with schoolmates, I’ll look foreword to reopening those old pages again.

But why reading? With all the technology we enjoy nowadays, why can’t other media completely replace reading? But of course they have, to a significant extent, replaced books and reading. But I can’t find any other form of media that can present thought as good as the written word can. That is, the best way to preserve and present thoughts is to use language. Whether spoken or written, language is the best tool we have to communicate our thoughts. And while the spoken word can give new depths to the words uttered, primarily by changing the tone, volume and enunciation, writing them gives the audience much more degrees of freedom in consuming the material.

I do acknowledge that there is a whole category of concepts that we can hardly describe by words. We may choose to call these concepts the language singularities; where language as we know it breaks down. All forms of art can be said to have evolved, to lesser or more degrees, to fill this cleft in our language. But even then, art without context is too abstract to communicate unambiguously thoughts and ideas and complex concepts. It does a great job of communicating the aspects of our thoughts that we still can’t speak or write, in only (if you’d forgive the pun) so many words. Art is complimentary to language, but can never replace it. Language is more precise and more rich and, perhaps most importantly, can describe what can’t be. Using words, you can discuss paradoxes and other-worldly what-if scenarios. We can even talk about objects that we can’t create physically because they’re logically impossible or physics as we know it doesn’t allow for such objects to be. Like thinking about something being nowhere. Or a curved path being shorter than a straight one.

Give me a man or woman who has read a thousand books and you give me an interesting companion. Give me a man or woman who has read perhaps three and you give me a dangerous enemy indeed.
– Anne Rice, The Witching Hour

Books serve more than one purpose. If it weren’t for books civilization as we know it wouldn’t exist. More accurately, I should say that if it weren’t for the written word, passing knowledge across generations would’ve been near impossible. Thanks to the scraps we inherited, we know not only what happened in the past, not only what some thought created, but we also know how some were forged, plagiarized and even distorted. We know how the powerful rewrote history. We even know why many, many texts didn’t survive. In some cases the lifetime of the then-paper technology was as short as a hundred or may be two-hundred years. But we also know that the important texts were copied and recopied by scribes. And indeed, the heretical, competing, unapproved texts were systematically sought and destroyed, and forever perished.

This is precisely what we lose when we don’t read. By not reading, not only we don’t get to know what generations upon generations thought and did, but we also don’t get to know what there isn’t to know. That is, when we read, we know much more than what’s written; we also know what’s not written about. This may sound tautological, but it’s not. It’s easy to assume and guess, say, what the old Egyptians knew and could do. However, it’s a completely different thing to read what they wrote and discover there is not a single word of advanced technology beyond their age and time. It’s sobering to know what’s missing from the historical record. Granted, there have been systematic distortions by rivals left and right, and we can never know for a fact that what’s missing didn’t really exist. However we will know that it’s missing, probably because it didn’t exist. At the very least, when we do make claims, we’ll know how much it’s backed by evidential facts or in many cases, the lack thereof. And this is why books are important. Hardly can one know anything without sharing what others claim to know.

Some hold a single book and revere it as the most important book. The first and the last. The only book worth of reading. They challenge others to find anything comparable to the beauty and wisdom of their book of choice. They challenge others to come up with anything even remotely similar to the words written in their book. Invariantly, I ask them, how do you know? How would you know where that single book stands without reading anything else?

While many powerful social movements were at least in part fueled by fiction (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on racial issues for example,) the fact remains that fiction needs to maintain an entertainment aspect. This quality of being entertaining, to my perception, compromises the integrity of the material. Put differently, to know what’s factual and what’s artistic, one has to work very hard, which will probably rob the book of its fun. I prefer to read fiction for the entertainment value and artistic and cultural characteristics, but I get my info and facts from nonfiction. Indeed, I find fiction disarraying when I’m attempting lucidity.

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