Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Place of Books

Terry Shames answering our question of the week:  We live in a world of TVs at the gas station, split screens, crawl lines, sound notifications, personal message alerts and a thousand other pipes feeding information direct to our over-stimulated brains. What's the place of books in all of that clamour? Do you worry about the future of reading?

“Information direct to our over-stimulated brains.” For me, the key word is, “information.”  The kind of information we get from most media—TV, radio, print, message alerts, social media—consists of reports on “what’s happening, what just happened, or what is about to happen.”  I admit I’m hooked on the immediacy of it. It’s almost like a drug. But this has only been  true in the last few years, since politics has become a blood sport. I’m not going to do a political post, but I’ll leave it at that—I’m alarmed and I’ve become obsessed with “what’s happening.”

I read the paper version of the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as on-line versions of the Washington Post, the Atlantic Monthly, and read the on-line versions of the New Yorker. In addition, I read a lot of on-line media such as Salon.com, Medium, and various things I get directed to from others.

I also read non-fiction books. It used to be I read a lot of science, but these days it’s mostly political. And still, it seems endless. The amount of “what’s happening” information can overwhelm me.

Reading fiction books gives me a different kind of information than the other media affords. It doesn’t tell me “what’s happening.” Instead, helps me make sense of what’s happening. It helps me understand people and the world. The best fiction reveals who people are on the inside, how they feel, how they act and react to life. It shows me how they became who they are. Good crime fiction it tells me what might happen if…

Good fiction also can be a respite from the busy-ness of the information world. I can read books that take me to quiet places, to places of serenity and joy. There are books that make me laugh out loud (thank you, David Sedaris). Good books introduce me to people and ideas I may never have a chance to know in everyday life. They can help me make sense of people and ideas I don’t understand. They can soothe, and entertain, and alarm. It’s hard for me to imagine a world without books.

I remember years ago going into the beautifully decorated penthouse condo of a very wealthy and successful man. He had art on the walls, sleek modern furniture, an enviable kitchen. But I was puzzled, because the place felt somehow empty, as if no one really lived there. Something was missing.  I realized it was books. There was not one book in the place. I couldn’t even begin to fathom that. He was generous and friendly, enjoyed travel, and had a good sense of humor. But his conversation was mostly about the getting and spending of money—not particularly satisfying as conversation. The woman who was dating him soon grew tired of him. “He doesn’t read. He doesn’t have any ideas,” she remarked.

By contrast, the first time I went to my husband’s house, I was thrilled because he had books everywhere. He had as many books as I did. He and I both still read everything we can get our hands on. And yes, there are books stacked everywhere in our house.

I don’t know if I can say anything definitive about the future of books. I suppose I should worry about the future of reading, but when I’m on an airplane or in the subway, or in public places, I often see people absorbed in books. I have no idea whether it’s more or fewer than it used to be, but I do think books still have a solid place in the world.

There’s one more personal anecdote I can share. Recently I told my 31-year-old son that I was going to a reading by Lisa Brackmann for her new book. He said, “Oh, she’s that writer whose books I like.” He doesn’t have much time for reading since he works non-stop—but he knows a writer whose books he appreciates. I take heart in that.


7 Criminal Minds said...

I enjoyed reading your perspective and agree that books will always have a place in our lives and serve to broaden our ideas. Well written piece!

Susan C Shea said...

A world without books would not only be terrifying, it would be new in the history of the world. Even before paper, before the printing press, humans were documenting, dreaming, telling myth stories on any available stone, cave wall, and dried plant! I suppose the issue is how many humans pay attention, can read or see, believe it's worth their time reading books.

Terry said...

Susan, I think that’s the key. How many people think it’s worth their while. That’s a discussion unto itself.

Other Lisa said...

Well, I am honored that my books make your delightful son's very short list!

Lisa (Brackmann)