Written & Media by Kevin Dunne.
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” Carl Sagan said that, and he was right.
Books hold such wonderful power and can cast spells over those reading them. Few things in life offer such companionship as a good book. From thousand pagers like Les Miserables or The Stand, to children’s novels like Goodnight Moon or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, to mind-benders like Dune or The Silmarillion, or to plain old good reads like A Series of Unfortunate Events, books make up our lives and our histories. You can read anywhere and anytime. Waiting in line, in class, at work, outside in the sun, or inside on a rainy day. Isn’t that just grand? I think so.
Not everybody likes the same books, or agrees upon the message presented in some books. Fredrich Nietzsche’s works were misconstrued by the Germans around the time of the second world war (as well as a great deal of people nowadays), and meanings and messages of religious texts the world over are disputed. This fact speaks volumes about humanity and what we hold dear to us. Nobody has gone to war over whether or not the Twilight saga is good or not (people’s stances on Team Edward vs Team Jacob notwithstanding), but there have been multiple physical and verbal assaults over interpretations of The Bible. The same power books give us, the same sense of hope, love, wonder, humor, and adventure also gives rise to malice, discontent, and anger. Looking back to Carl Sagan’s quote, it is difficult to believe that an object made from trees could cause such distain. I think it’s important for us, regardless of our religion, gender, creed, etc. to read books more mindfully and considerately. That’s not to say that we should do extensive research every time we read a book; that’s what school is for, and that would take the fun out of reading. No, I think how we think about reading, and what we read should be more attentive. Knowing about a book’s background and context will give you a better interpretation of the text, but you don’t need to do that for books like Harry Potter. Maybe it would help for academic or intellectual reading, like Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, or Daniel Feller’s The Jacksonian Promise. The type of reading we’re doing and how and who we discuss what we read with is what we should be more cognizant of.
Take for example Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, as well as Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. The two differ quite a bit. While Kubrick turned the book into a horror film (and this is not jab at the man, he made some of the most beautiful movies to date), the book’s main focus isn’t about Jack Torrance running around with an axe. The entire book hinges on the dangers of substance abuse, mainly alcoholism, based off of King’s first-hand experience with the problem. The rest of the story –the running around with an axe, redrum, the ballroom- revolves around that main plot. In this instance, knowing the background of the novel helps understand its meaning a great deal, but if you infer just a bit, you could arrive at a similar conclusion. Too often though, I feel that we don’t infer meaning when we read. I have tried to discuss the book with people who have read it, but kept getting the same response; it was a spooky book. This frustrated me just a bit. Was I wrong in my interpretation of the book? No, I wasn’t. This isn’t me being pretentious either, I looked into it because it bugged me so much, and King gave me my answer in On Writing. I came to the following conclusion: We don’t catch big, abstract themes when we read. Instead, we focus on the actiony or scary bits of a story, or parts that weren’t there to begin with. We focus on Jack Torrance with the axe more than we do on his addiction to the bottle. Even when we read for leisure, I feel as if we’re not so much reading, as glancing at words on a page.
Maybe it’s because growing up, we were forced to read books and over-analyze them. In high school, I remember loathing Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye because I had to analyze every word in every sentence. I’m still surprised that I didn’t hate reading after taking that dreaded literature class. And maybe, it’s because of this desire for schools to shove all of the great books in our faces and force us to analyze them that does this. Having to discuss everything Holden did with my peers in a forced way made me hate the kid. I don’t think this is any way to gain understanding, because a). it’s all forced and artificial, b). there is no room for cognition or free-formed thought, because a teacher expects one answer and will offer no substitute, and c). we are taught to approach reading from only one perspective. I think this carries over to when we read for pleasure. We either look at every word and don’t get what we’re reading because we question everything, even if it is as insignificant as a character blowing a bubble, or we speed through the book and check the internet to get a summary of what we just read. The latter could be more dangerous, because it furthers the notion that we don’t discuss with anybody what we read, but instead, spew up what somebody said on their blog about a book. I really think that when we read a book, we should just do that. No looking for meaning where it doesn’t exist (here’s looking at you high school English classes), but reading a book because we would like to. If you want to know more about it, then do some research, but don’t go mad; it’s for leisure, not for class. As per talking about books, I personally avoid the internet, mainly because I enjoy face-to-face conversations where somebody can’t pull up facts about a book on Wikipedia. You could join a book club, ask a friend what they thought of a book, or do something even bolder, and just make your mind up about the book for yourself.
I was recently introduced to two wonderful books that have changed my life, and in some regard, sparked me to write this article. Two dear friends of mine, Gracia Heilmer and Trent Johnson, let me borrow Peace is Every Step (Thich Nhat Hanh) and Under the Overpass (Mike Yankoski), respectively. The pages of these books contain such power and simplicity, with the ability to transform your life in unimaginable ways, as any good book is apt to do. Peace is Every Step is a delicate and delightful book on the importance of having meaningfulness and purpose in everything that we do. Hanh, a Zen Buddhist, offers ways to make things that frustrate you into things that make you grateful, while Yankoski, a Christian, tells a firsthand story of the poor in America and how Christians and the church engage them. Both stories are written by people who believe in a very different god, but share very similar messages. One idea that entered my mind as I read these books, was that books can shape our personalities. We can reflect what we’ve read. Gracia is a mindful and purposeful person, which reflects themes in the books she lent me, and Trent is compassionate and serviceable, which also matches ideas in the book he lent me. I am not sure how they read, but I have engaged in conversation with them on the books they have read and have discovered that they didn’t over-analyze every word, but formed their own opinions on what they read. Actually, Trent just walked in the room as I typed that last sentence, so let me ask him…one moment. He said, “I burn through them suckas, because I really get involved in the story, but if something catches my eye, I’ll go back and re-read it, just so it makes sense. To give an example, and not to spoil Song of Ice and Fire, *content removed*.” He also agrees that books can reflect the personality of a person. If you read for a class, then there is an emphasis on all of that detail, but when it is for fun, you can engross yourself in a story and not worry about every little detail if you really want to. It is reassuring that I am not the only one who is active in this belief.
Maybe it’s just coincidence that these things happened, or maybe it’s that we’re attracted to books which reflect our personalities. It could be both, though that’s a bit of a cop-out answer. I was interested in Under the Overpass, because my dream job is that of self-imposed poverty. Yeah, it’s a noble profession that we all strive towards, I know. I suppose that the idea has always interested me, because I’ve lived a largely comfortable life and to be thrown into such an unknown and uncertain lifestyle would be an interesting experience. I think about these sorts of things, and sometimes act on them, and Yankoski acted on a big one for me. The subject and idea behind the book largely spoke to me on a personal level and made me invest myself in it a great deal. I didn’t read the book as a call for everybody to go out and become homeless for a year like Yankoski. I was attracted to the idea, and the stories discussed in the book furthered that desire for me to try what he did, and I think that is somehow significant or reflective towards my personality. Does that prove my theory? I am not sure, and at this point, I might just be writing my thoughts down and not going anywhere with all of this.
So, the idea that how we engage what we read and how we interpret the ideas presented to us in books matters a lot. I could have interpreted Hanh’s message of living simply and Yankoski’s story of life on the streets as a sign that we live in an overly-materialistic and capitalist-driven society, but those weren’t the authors’s main points. The authors both believe, as I said before, in different cosmic deities, yet they arrive at basically the same conclusion. How then, can dialectic religions agree, when so many sects and sub-sects of one religion argue so much? I think the answer is that because the two authors took such consideration to the truth -that people are people regardless of anything, to quote a poet of sorts- and didn’t dress up their books in scholarly and intellectual jargon, readers could actually read, despite an opposition to one belief or the other, and not be troubled. We can adopt books to our personalities, even if they don’t fit with our religious beliefs. You don’t have to be a Zen Buddhist to read Han’s book, or a Christian to read Yankoski’s. This is the power of a book. It creates magic by unifying us, despite any difference in religion or other major differences. Remember, it is how we read and discuss a book that matters most.