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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Books to Ashes

     Sometimes I wonder, what is the point of reading fiction? I enjoy it, but is there a purpose beyond entertainment? I’ve come to the conclusion that novels have their place in one’s life. A well-written piece of work gives you a window into the world beyond your own life. You gain a new understanding of the world according to someone else, and a new appreciation of other times and places. You can travel to France or Vietnam with your library card as your passport. The cover of a book is an instant time machine or teleporter. Sail the seas with Ishmael and come away with a rudimentary knowledge of ships and whaling. You may never have been on a boat, but as soon as you step aboard the Hispaniola en route to Treasure Island, you almost believe that you have watched the sun rise from the top of a mast, scoured a deck, and braved a tempest. You’ve drifted down an African river into the heart of darkness. You’ve journeyed to the center of the earth. You’ve been to Boston, London, Uganda, and Berlin. You can tell all about the palace of Cleopatra, you can describe the Crystal Palace, you are familiar with the untainted plains full of American Buffalo. You can give report on the sewers of Paris, describe the slaughterhouses of early 20th Century Chicago, detail of barracks of Auswitch.

     Reading a novel is wasted time if you get nothing out of it. At the very least, you ought to be able to learn something about the world, past or present. But is should be more than that. Novel reading should color your world, should make it brighter and more vivid. You ought to be able to leave the black and white of the pages and perceive the real world colored in shades of scarlet, gold, vermillion, magenta, ultramarine. The words on the pages should paint your world and teach you to FEEL, to laugh brighter, grieve deeper, love sweeter. To cry poignantly, care passionately.  A novel should steal your shoes and place you in someone else’s. And when you close your book, the characters in its pages should stay in front of your eyes. In the faces of orphans, you will see Oliver Twist and Sarah Crew. In the eyes of young woman who has ruined her life, you see the eyes of Fantine. The bitter woman whose love has been frozen begins to look like Miss Havasham, and the tears of the man who lost everything are the tears of Jurgis Rudkis. You wept for Robert Jordan’s Maria, for Phineas, for Ona. Your heart went out to Heidi and Mary Lennox’s Colin. So be Dicken. Be Jean Valjean Robin Hood and Percy Blakeney. Let your heart be awakened. Care more deeply than you dare, and do something. The whole world is a nonfiction novel. Be the hero; help the helpless. You always wished that someone had saved Piggy or helped the Joads. Your heart cried, “Why? Why didn’t anyone pay attention and make it right?” But these stories are only imagination. They go away when you put the book on the shelf. The cries of pain that sound all around you are real. So find yourself caring. Find yourself seeing and understanding. Otherwise, the time spent reading is wasted; the pages of your books are ash in the wind.

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