And a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.
Consider: Facebook has two groups: I Love Reading, and I Hate Reading. The former has, as of this writing, 22,712 likes. The other? The I Hate Reading group? 55,182.
There’s been an odd sentiment permeating our culture, for quite a long while. People of intelligence (authors, scientists, philosophers, etc.) are no longer looked upon as pillars, or even Doric columns, of society. It’s almost fashionable to be dumb. And look, I know I’m really glossing over things with those prior statements ,and I could provide oodles of examples of what and who’s popular, and how it relates to having some semblance of a brain. But I’m not a ‘does research to back up his statements’ kinda guy.
Despite the prevalence and downright domination of nerd culture (again with the generalities), one of the most reviled examples of despising intelligence is books and the act of reading.
And I just don’t fucking get it.
I own enough books to open a small store (or have a rather large table at a flea market). I refer to one of my five-shelf black bookcases as the Monolith (the other, and the three-shelf bookcase, sadly go on sans sobriquet). And they’re all filled with tomes desperate for my perusal. I even look at what books people are reading in movies. According to my mother, I taught myself to read, and proceeded to devour books. Libraries feared my arrival. Bookstores got wet at the amount of cash Mother and Father Brophy were to spend on their voracious son. Stephen King’s It stands as a formative experience of my childhood. I’d read three, four books at the same time. The stack of books I would leave the library with would be taller than me (I’m about hobbit-sized).
I love books. Hell, I even love the smell of the damn things. Newly Released; Recently Used; Nobody Has Touched This In Seventeen Years and Has Been Soaking Up the Scent of the Collective Bibliophiles of This Area.
But boy oh boy, did high school English nearly ruin that love and passion and my utter rapaciousness to consume whatever book I found, or stumbled upon, or have recommended to me.
So I get it, haters of reading (not you fine folks reading these words): High school English shoveling 1984, The Old Man and the Sea, and A Tale of Two Cities down your mental throat; being asked to write an interpretive essay and provide your opinion on what the billboard with the glasses in The Great Gatsby meant and being told I was wrong (this always killed me: how your opinion or your own interpretation, something that has no right or wrong answer, was considered by a particular English teacher who shall remain nameless the wrong answer, and that you were an idiot for even thinking that. God, how I hated Ms. Petrangleo).
Again, I get it:: Schooling really takes the inherent joys of reading and brings it out to the barn and puts both barrels of a shotgun against its temple and blows its fucking brains out all over the hay-strewn floor.
And there’s the problem. It’s not the reading itself that’s a bitch with a gun: it’s the being forced to read something you probably never read on your own, which therefore instills in one the idea that reading, as a whole, stinks on ice.
So I know what it was like, oh haters of reading. Anything was better than holding those cumbersome objects in your hands and moving your eyes left to right over and over and over. Video games and television were so much simpler: you do the same thing, sit and stare, but no eye movement required!
Now, this isn’t a knock against video games of television, two mediums that have provided me Doctor Who and Skyrim and Breaking Bad and Red Dead Redemption (and so on and so forth ad infinitum). I love both. I recall fondly getting lost in Rapture; enjoying the many foibles of the denizens of Springfield; battling interdiminsional beings and a military battalion tasked with eliminating anything living (including your unspeaking self) in the Black Mesa Research Facility; or toiling over just who the fuck was a Cylon amongst the last survivors of the Twelve Colonies.
But there are some problems with the time that drains away from you while enjoying some of these modes of entertainment. Red Dead Redemption is an open-world video game set in a Leone-esque Old West. It’s basically The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly with a controller. You play John Marston, a man on a quest to kill his former gang members. However, its openworldness allows you to roam around, engage in side quests, and follow the main storyline whenever you felt the need to. I could fire the game up at 10:00 PM, hop on my horse, Mr. Peppercorn (I named him that, not the game. Horses need names) and travel from McFarland Ranch to Thieves Landing, helping strangers on the side of the road, fighting off bandits, hiding in the brush and hunt bear.
And I look at the clock, and it’s two-fucking-thirty-four AM.
Video games, if done right in providing the gamer with enough to do and a compelling story, make you unaware of the pain in your shoulders from sitting hunched over, the ache in your ever-pressing thumbs from mashing buttons, the drain on what precious hours you have on this Earth. When you realize all that time you spent, pressing those buttons and staring at furniture (a TV’s basically furniture, if you think about it) you feel this hollowness. This let-down ennui within your empty stomach (empty cos, like, you’ve been hunting bear for five hours). All that time, and what have you done?
Now, I’ve gone balls-deep into the night with a book in hand, my eyes traipsing through sentences. Gone many a night at this. And when I look upon the time and see 4:21 AM glaring back, and work’s at 10:30 AM, the last thing I feel is regret. What I feel is pissed, cos now I have to put the book away and sleep so I’m not a grumpy shit at work.
Reading is work. You have to comprehend the sentences, form the images in your head that those words conjure. You’re doing something that was once such an amazing and important part of being a human being: you’re using your imagination. And the imagination’s a bloody powerful thing. It’s the source of all the movies and TV shows and video games and, yes, books that you love and adore. It’s where characters you sometimes know and care about more than the people you know a platform to perform and entertain and enrapture and enrage. What a book does better than anything else is that all those words and sentences can only do so much; your imagination ultimately paints the full picture, how the world looks, how a character holds a cigarette. That’s all you. You’re engaging your brain to an extent that movies and TV shows and video games strive for.
Now everybody: I’m not saying you have to go out and buy up a library. I’m not expecting you to read the classics, or what curriculums designate as ‘required.’ But read, damn you. Find what you like. And read it.
Your brain, your imagination, your soul will thank you for it.
Daniel Brophy is an unprofessional writer who dreams of being one. He has published one short story many years ago in some forgotten magazine, and has written a multitude of unfinished novels. He also has a rather unhealthy obsession with the Alien film franchise.