I remember when I was about five years old my primary school teacher showed the class a series of pictures. We had to arrange the pictures in the correct order to make a story. One had to do with someone going out for a walk, deciding to take an umbrella, it starting to rain and the umbrella going up. Weird the stuff you remember. Of course, even then I couldn’t do the predictable and so I arranged the pictures differently and had a story to go with it. (I think my umbrella was magical and found the man who had forgotten it.) But the point is we all need stories so we can learn to anticipate the consequences of our actions.
That’s a lesson that seems to be increasingly ignored by otherwise intelligent people in recent years. They vote for fascists and seem surprised when their civil rights are eroded. They allow bigots to dictate the terms of civil conduct ignoring how appallingly said bigots’ input has proved every single time they’ve been given a voice.
Even cavemen told stories. They explained the night sky by creating myths and legends. They told the stories to their children and those same tales are being told today. Children learn very young that stories have value.
“The child intuitively comprehends that although… stories are unreal, they are not untrue …” — Bruno Bettelheim The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976)
My grandmother was a storyteller. When my brothers and I stayed with her, the best time was when she lit the fire and she told us tales of the headless horseman, or the telltale heart. Back then, I thought she’d made them up herself, but I later learned she was a constant reader and she passed on what she read to us. She also told us about her childhood. She’d had to leave school at the age of 12 and work as a scullery maid. All the same, she never stopped reading and books elevated her far beyond her peers.
Sadly, the world of readers is shrinking. According to the Washington Post, the number of people who read literature — novels, poetry, plays — has been in a steady decline since the 1980s. See the linked article for the specifics.
In my opinion, there’s a direct correlation between the decline in people’s ability to see other people’s points of view, to anticipate negative outcomes of actions, to see the big picture. There seems to be an erosion of sympathy and empathy in people who do not read. Look at the people around you. You can probably guess who is a reader and who is not. Do you think Donald Trump reads literature?
One of the differences between a good novel and a video-game or an action movie, for instance, is that a novel doesn’t do the thinking for you. Fiction doesn’t necessarily answer all the questions. Heroes sometimes make mistakes, they behave badly, they are, if they’re well-written, human. Villains can sometimes be kind. People from cultures and backgrounds far different from your own can teach you something about yourself. Really good books can make you think about the world in a new way. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) told wealthy people that even servants and orphans have lives they value and can feel deeply. Robert Louis Stevenson showed that even good people can have a dark and dangerous side to them in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde (1886). Literature opens doors, allows us to explore cultures we may not otherwise be able to interact with, challenges our values, and offers us insight into ourselves. Furthermore, when you read you enter the world of the book, you identify with the character. When you watch something on a screen you’re an observer. There’s always some distance between you and the characters.
Neil Gaiman says,
“Reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do.”
He goes on to add, “I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.
It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are
very real correlations.” Neil Gaiman
Reading is habit-forming. Once you start to read a book, unless it has been forced upon you or is not to your taste, you feel compelled to read to the end. Once you’ve been captured by the right book, you’ll find that reading is fun.
You can’t love everything. I have mentioned before that my grandmother was my book-pusher when I was a child. She had me reading The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), The Diary of Anne Frank (1947), and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) all before the age of eight. She also tried to foist Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) on me and I loathed it. So yes, you won’t love everything, but the things you do love you’ll never forget.
If you have children, tell them stories, read them books, buy them books. Make sure they have a library card and encourage them to use it. Society is depending on them. The best decision makers are the ones with imagination. As another great reader, George Bernard Shaw, once said,
You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not?”