Thursday, August 7, 2014

August 7 2014. Is reading escapist books just consumption? But what is such a book?

Good grief! Why have I asked that question.

I’m going to tie myself in knots trying to answer it because I don’t like to think of any form of book reading as mere consumption. And yet, it is hard to elevate reading an escapist novel—such as one of my very own researched action thrillers—to  productive “doing” (except to make the point that relaxation, in itself, is both necessary and productive—indeed it is essential). I guess I should probably add that many thrillers—apart from being thrilling—are well written, witty, and informative.

But I also seem to be making the point that consuming is inherently flawed—and inferior to doing. But is that true?

In previous blogs, I have made the point a number of times that while in boarding school, I escaped into books—something which rather gives the impression that escape was all I did. Actually, that is very far from the truth.

What happened in reality was that reading endless adventure stories not only taught me a great deal about world events, history and geography (an unintended but useful consequence) but they countered the loneliness I felt at being in boarding school—and gave me the confidence to develop in other ways.

For instance. reading roughly three books a week—in addition to my academic work and compulsory sports—laid the foundation for me to become a writer.  They also taught me to write well by school standards (I was to learn humility when I tried to write professionally) so I won numerous prizes. I also became the academic top of my prep school—a position I did not retain in middle school after puberty cut in (and I truly hated Greek). Nonetheless, I was still sufficiently academically advanced to enter university two years ahead of the norm (more fool me).

All in all, my personal experience of reading a truly astonishing number of books—most of which would not be regarded as literature—has been nothing but positive. That said—were they other than consumption?

Or could it be there are different types of consumptions?

Well, of course there are—and I am being intellectually careless in ranting about consumption without clarifying what I really mean.

But do I know what I really mean—or was I just shooting from the hip?

I plead guilty to not thinking things through. My very own blog has nailed me! Now there is irony for you.

A key point about reading is that it is imagination dependent. No book gives you the full story—or close. Mostly, the reader has to fill in the blanks—something which can require considerable effort. In short, you have  to do—think—to read. I have no doubt about that whatsoever. That morphs reading into the category of doing.

A lot?

Not necessarily. That depends hugely on the book. But, unless you read nothing but trash, I tend towards the view that reading is doing—that reading contains an essential element of doing—that it is active rather than passive.

Enough? I find it hard to answer that.

But why do I object to consumption? Is there any validity to my argument?

I think there is. I have explained myself badly—and regret that—but the essence of a consumer society is one which encourages people to buy rather than to think. It substitutes stuff for social concern. It regards the acquisition of stuff as behavior of social merit—and failure to acquire it as failure. In practical terms, it tends to have numerous negative side effects including threatening the environment. In truth, the issue is not consumption as such—but the importance we give it, and the degree we consume. We allocate it social esteem it does not deserve.

Perhaps I have failed to advance my case adequately. Still, the issue in itself is worth thinking about.

A classic argument against reading is that it is not real life—and that only social activities are real. I have had that viewpoint expressed to me repeatedly—and with some vehemence.

Following that line of thought through, watching football on TV with friends is in some way morally superior to reading a novel.

Do I buy that? No—I don’t think I do. I think reading—and writing—enhance the human condition in more ways than we understand.

But what really is “an escapist book.”

In truth, the genre is not really the issue. It’s any book that really engages you—and that is a lot of books as far as I am concerned—some of which would be regarded as really “heavy.” What can I say! Economics, for instance, turns me on.




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