When we pick up a decent book, we live not once but twice, and each new book allows us to live again and absorb the thoughts of someone who has absorbed thousands of other people’s thoughts. The book is the most powerful medium yet invented for intellectual stimulation, growth, and change. The bounty is endless and in the contemporary world very cheap. Most, though, reject the gift. Is this not strange?
Pretty much everyone who is deeply interested in reading gets and/or writing gets some version of the utility question that I answered in the first paragraph (and have answered in other places). Each answer has its own idiosyncrasies, but I think they have a common core that revolves around knowledge and pleasure. The issue is on my mind because a friend wrote me to say regarding Asking Anna, “thanks for having thought through that book content and made it available for people like me to read and then not have to do some of the work. I like that.” The crazy thing is that crazy people have been doing this for centuries: packaging many thousands of hours of thinking into works that take only a few hours to read.
That’s true of fiction and nonfiction, and in some ways lately nonfiction has been leading the perceive quality race. But historically fiction has tended to advance the state of the art in prose, with novelists especially leading the charge towards renewing the language. Arguably this tendency has decreased over time, but I’ve never read a great nonfiction writer who didn’t also read fiction, or read a lot of fiction at one point.
Good novelists tend to be obsessed with the quality of their prose in a way fewer nonfiction writers are. Too many nonfiction writers focus on content at the expense of form and beauty; some have been glamored by some of the stupid literary theory that passes for erudition in some academic circles (Katharine Frank’s books, like Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex, suffer from this, though she is merely a salient example and far from the only offender).
Fiction tends to train us to attend to language, and books like Wood’s How Fiction Works and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer do the same. When one becomes sufficiently attuned to language, poorly written work or even work that is merely competent becomes aggravating, like a song messed by a drunk guitarist.
That’s my short utilitarian defense of fiction, but I read it for pleasure. The history of the West is one in which pleasure is suspect, especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition; sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for less-good reasons. That tradition encourages us to make sure that pleasure is always deferred, and that’s the tradition that led to the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution and hence to the present day. We’re still getting somewhat used to enormous material wealth, at least by historical standards. But pleasure has its own importance, and there is pleasure in the many lives we can choose to live through books. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that so many people do not make the choice.
Every great book is the result of years or decades of studying and experience, distilled into a volume you can read in a few hours. How could you not want that?