Monday, June 20, 2005

The Dangers of Reading Fiction

Thomas Jefferson wrote this to a friend:

“A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. Nothing can engage attention unless dressed in all the figments of fancy, and nothing so bedecked comes amiss. The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life. The mass of trash, however, is not without some distinction; some few modeling their narratives, although fictitious, on the incidents of real life, have been able to make them interesting and useful vehicles of a sound morality . . . For like reason, too, much poetry should not be indulged. Some is useful for forming style and taste. Pope, Dryden, Thompson, Shakespeare, and of the French, Molière, Racine, the Corneilles, may be read with pleasure and improvement.”

Whoa, Tom! And what’s your opinion on crack?

Actually, I can see what he means. I am nearly 50 years and, at my advanced time of life, it’s shocking how I conduct myself with regard to what I read. Nowadays, I really should peruse the newspaper each day like I was cramming for a final exam. And I’m not talking about the funnies or my horoscope either. Should I stray into the sports section, I know I need keep it to only checking the scores and then get out of there as fast as I can. My father, when he was 50, faithfully read the newspaper and The Consulting Engineer, a trade journal that I skimmed over once or twice and decided it made my head hurt too much. There’s plenty of “serious” reading out there for me, things to do with world politics, mutual funds, ethics, and all the other subjects the Harvard Book Store puts in its front window. At the very least, I could read the trade journals that apply to my field.

William Manchester in his book, The Glory and the Dream, made fun of the people who scanned the front page of the paper and then went directly to the comics and sports. Was he spying on me? Because that’s exactly what I do. I know just enough about what’s going on to be conversant with someone during a 30 second elevator trip, but please don’t probe too far into my depth of knowledge. I have general opinions about everything, but I doubt I could ever defend any of them against a contrary-minded person who is better informed. Every now and again I get lucky and am able to bring up a snatch of information I heard on the radio that morning while eating my breakfast, and my listener thereby is fooled into thinking I subscribe to Time or Newsweek. But no. It’s not that way at all.

Do I read? Yes, I read a lot. I don’t have enough free time to become a voracious reader, but I do pretty well with the time allotted me. But it’s all fiction. Ordinarily I keep two books going on at once, the one that I read and the other that I listen to. For instance, I just finished listening to The DaVinci Code and I’m working my way through all the novels of Carson McCullers. I read plenty of the highbrow stuff, like Shakespeare, Dickens, Trollope, Austen, the Brontes, etc., and I go in for purely escapist novels by authors like Ken Follett and Michael Crichton. A secret delight of mine are the Tarzan stories, and I adore Sherlock Holmes and anything written by W. Somerset Maugham. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what crap is and keep away from it. But it’s all, as I say, fiction. The closest I get to serous reading are the historical novels, and who knows what the authors had done to the facts in those.

Fiction reading, for me, is a drug. I seek the oblivion that works of fantasy give me like the junkie gropes for his needle and the opium smoker his pipe. I don’t go anywhere without a book. When I go to the movies (another fiction source Tom would clearly disapprove of), I always arrive a half hour early to ensure a good seat and am careful to bring my Itty Bitty Book Light in case the theatre is too dark for reading. I’ve taken the family to Disneyworld three times and I distinguish the visits in my memory not by the dates but by which book I was reading as I stood in the lines. My wife and I went to Hawaii once. Gone with the Wind. Puerto Rico lots of times. The Odyssey, Shogun, Vanity Fair, and the aforementioned The Glory and the Dream among others (that last one is technically non-fiction but, as a friend of mine once put, it’s not so much history as it is William Manchester’s opinion of history). Paris. The Mosquito Coast. Rome. Rebecca. I’ve left a trail of books like a cigarette smoker leaves cigarette butts on the ground or the wino his discarded bottles wrapped in brown paper bags.

My only defense is that I’ve chosen a socially acceptable vice. Many people think what I’m doing is worthwhile, even laudable, as if my reading a book outranks an illiterate in Cambodia working the fields from dawn to dusk to feed his family. My wife is on to me though. She would rather see me take a nap than read, probably because napping might mean I’m reenergizing myself for productive work around the house. True, I don’t idle my time away in a barroom or play the ponies, but is this much better? When will the day come when I look myself in the mirror and say to myself, “Brother, I got it bad”? When will I stand among my fellow recovering fiction readers and say, “My name is John T. and I haven’t read a paperback in three months”?

Maybe after I finish the book I’m reading.


Blogger Spirit Of Owl said...

HA! I never knew that Jefferson could be such a schmuck! That's shocking.

I’ve got a pretty good idea of what crap is and keep away from it
Ah, that momentarily glitched on The DaVinci Code, right? :p

Current affairs don't mean much directly to the guy breaking his back in the fields, but art does. Painting, music, literature, sculpture - it's all about ideas, aesthetic, and meaning.

I completely agree that most art is about fluff and superficial entertainment at best, if not downright exploitation, but in the end, brow beating intellectuals who display attitudes like Jefferson shows in that piece are elitist arrogant indoctrinators who need to go out of the house and hang out with some regular people a bit more often. I suspect they wouldn't though, out of contempt. They have no right to take that attitude, but since they have, screw 'em!

And us lot, us people, we don't need to feel guilty for making the space between sleep more interesting.

Viva la funny pages! Then there'll be less media exposure for the politicians - so maybe they'll stop preening and get on with their jobs.


(btw, I think the Declaration of Independence is on of the world's outstanding works of literature.)

10:22 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"Ah, that momentarily glitched on The DaVinci Code, right?"

Oops, I forgot. That's nonfiction, isn't it?

Great comments, Spirit.

10:45 AM  
Blogger John said...

Yeah, well look at you.

11:38 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...


11:50 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

I read to escape reality. There's just too much reality around me.

When I was in school, I was that geek who carried about 5 books with me everywhere. I had this horrible fear of ending up stuck in a boring class, finishing one book, and having nothing else to read!

The only book you mentioned that I've read was Rebecca. Good stuff.

Right now, I'm listening John Grisham's The King of Torts while I finish some cabinets and I'm reading The Haunted Mesa by Louis L'Amour in my rare spare time. (I've read it about 10 times before, so the ending isn't a surprise.)

12:49 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

I keep meaning to read Louis L'Amour! I saw him interviewed on 20/20 or some show like that about a million years ago. His personal library had more books in it than the Library of Congress. I'm putting him on my list now.

12:58 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

I forgot to add I listened to a Grisham book myself. I think it was The Client. The kid who inadvertently heard incriminating evidence about a gangster. Fun to listen to.

1:01 PM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

I saw that movie... does that count? ;)

I read three books this weekend. All fluff. And I am of the opinion that everything you need to know is in the comics, so why bother with the rest? Besides, anything else will be covered on Jon Stewart anyhow! LOL!

1:18 PM  
Blogger trinamick said...

I own nearly every L'Amour book written, and between my grandpa & I, we do have them all. Big fan of his - I even did a speech on him. He did more in his life than most people could do with ten lifetimes.

I really like John Grisham. I've gotten into listening to books, so I can actually get something done while living in fiction.

2:13 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Read three books? Three? In a weekend? I see I'm talking to a pro here. I couldn't do that even if you gave me a quart of Visine and a keg of Red Bull.

2:14 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"I've gotten into listening to books, so I can actually get something done while living in fiction."

Works for cleaning the house, yardwork, shoveling snow, driving, house painting and everything in-between. It never feels like work.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Spirit Of Owl said...

"Ah, that momentarily glitched on The DaVinci Code, right?"
Oops, I forgot. That's nonfiction, isn't it?

Serious squawk! Gimme a break! ROTFL!

Three books really is some going in one weekend there NyPinta! I can't do what you all seem to do with the bunch of books on the go at a time thing either. I can only read one until it's finished, or I just get soooo confused!

Talking books are really expensive here in the UK. I borrow them from the library sometimes, but not often. I think that they're a great idea, though. I don't actually use the time wisely while they're on though. I just sit and stare out the window... LOL!

And here's where I really show myself up.... L'Amour? Um, who?? :P

3:25 PM  
Blogger Henry said...

Fiction is like Vitamin C for me. I dont want it, but I find I crave it once in a while.
Typically I read historical type books. But as everyone knows--even those are written with the authors 'slant' in mind so you wonder how much is true, and what parts are 'bent.'

3:56 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Henry: Try "The Eye of the Needle," by Ken Follett. Once picked up, can't be put down.

Spirit: I get all my audio books from the library too. I own 7 or 8 Shakepeare plays and all the Harry Potters (Jim Dale. BTW, is the best reader out there).

5:25 AM  
Blogger Mona said...

Ah...a book junkie. Well, life is so full of shoulds anyway, it's a shame when we're feeling as though we should read something more serious. It's personal time that we choose to use however we wish. Of course, it doesn't sound as though you feel too guilty about it. You're did find something socially acceptable, so keep on reading and feeding!!!

And we know how TJ would feel about TV, too.

6:39 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

He wouldn't like TV, but I bet he'd get hooked on Vice City and play it all the time. That would be just like Tom.

7:18 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

"And here's where I really show myself up.... L'Amour? Um, who?? :P "

Big writer of Westerns. Over 100 books, died in 1988. Cool guy - held nearly every job imaginable before becoming a writer. Was even a Golden Gloves boxer at one time.

I don't buy audio books either. I check them out at the library. I'm much too cheap to buy them.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Kristi said...

Book junkie here, too, although not as much as I used to be. Now I'm a puter junkie. :)

I would rather have a discussion any day with a fiction addict than someone who always has their nose buried in a Newsweek or Wall Street Journal. The fiction reader is bound to be more interesting and have a better sense of humor.

As for meaningless fluff, many current events also fit into that category, wouldn't you say? ;) IMO reading a good novel is a much better use of my time than listening to a panel on Fox News discuss Durbin's lastest foot-in-mouth comments.

10:10 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Okay, now I'm really going to expose myself: I had to Google "Durbin" to see what you meant. But I agree with you: there's nothing like a good novel.

6:20 AM  

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