A tale, fictitious or otherwise, illuminates truth. Jalaluddin Rumi
Reading is fundamental to living in our society, to meeting the demands of everyday life and to discovering the magic contained within books. Yet in this increasingly fast paced, hi-tech society we run the risk of losing that magic. We have become impatient, finding ourselves drawn to abbreviations rather than elaborations. Facebook and twitter reduce our news to paragraphs and sentences respectively, micro-fiction is blossoming, the pace of our stories is increasing, as is the speed with which they are delivered, until there is little time for contemplation, for pausing over a beautiful passage in a story, for allowing stories to seep into us and change us from within. And yet stories are vital. More than mere entertainment, they tell us who we are and they help us to find ourselves.
As Ralph Waldo Emmerson once said, ‘I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.’ Each of us is the product of the stories we tell ourselves, the stories our culture, our society, our family, our friends, our teachers, our filmmakers and our authors tell us. Story is what forms our identity and our opinions. But stories can do something else too. They can be truly revolutionary. When we read heroic myths, or novels which tell of the coming of age of a character, then we find that these stories can also help to free us from an identity that has been constructed by others and to see through the ideology in which we are immersed. Reading can and should help us to learn how to live as individuals within society, by encouraging us to reach inwards and explore ourselves and showing us how to reach out and connect with others.
Books are the bees which carry the quickening pollen from one to another mind. James Russell Lowell
Our imagination is a vital part of each of us. It is what makes us human, enabling us to experience events and emotions we might not normally experience, to reflect, to find commonality with others and thus understand ourselves. And most importantly, our imagination is what allows us to step into the shoes of others and so develop empathy. For as Joyce Carole Oates once wrote, reading helps us to ‘slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul,’ A tool, a toy, a gift and a responsibility, the imagination is something which must be developed and nurtured, not ignored or stifled. Reading is a collaborative effort between the author and the reader, allowing the reader to use his or her imagination to bring a story to life. Hence, our frequent disappointment with film adaptations of novels, which rarely come close to the extraordinary world or the characters we have already created in our imaginations from reading the novel. For as Stephen King wrote in On Writing, ‘description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.
If the stories we tell ourselves, and the way in which we use our imaginations play a role in creating who we are, then it might not be enough to simply encourage reading, we might also need to consider what we choose to read and how we read. At present, many of our stories, across much of our media, celebrate violence and cynicism, anger and betrayal. A premium, it seems, is placed on ugliness, and stories that ‘tell it how it is’ receive accolades from critics. There is much that is ugly and violent in this world and much of it needs telling, but from chaos and pain it is possible, through story, to create harmony and peace. Why are we so afraid to tell stories that explore love and compassion and hope? Why do we so often deride them? If story can change us, then it can also change the world, so perhaps we should also be writing and reading stories that are optimistic, that ‘tell it how it might be’ instead of ‘how it is’. Franz Kafka once wrote that ‘a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us’. These are the kinds of stories that I search for as a reader and the ones I seek to write. Stories should stay with us, should linger in our conscious and unconscious selves, working their magic even after we have finished with their writing, or their reading.
And as to how we read? Stories can be unifying, building bridges between people but they can also build fences, creating dangerous ‘us and them’ distinctions. Divisions are built when we read stories literally rather than metaphorically, when we skim the surface of a story rather than peer into its depths; when we criticise or value a book for its language and miss the beauty and purpose of its story; and when we dismiss a memoir because it is not entirely factual, missing the powerful emotional journey the writer has taken us on. Perhaps it’s time to once more step beyond the limitations of the currently predominant story of science and rationality. Instead of insisting on the distinction between fact and fiction, or denigrating myth as false, we might then allow ourselves to read more deeply, exploring the nature of truth. For not all truth is measurable. As Maya Angelou writes, ‘There’s a world of difference between truth and fact. Fact tells us the data. . . but facts can obscure the truth.’