Thursday, September 3, 2015

#246 / Serious Reading

A recent essay in The Nation poses the question, "Who Needs Fiction?" Joanna Scott, who authored the essay, is a fiction writer herself. Scott cites to a number of well-recognized authors, including Vladimir Nabokov, in searching for an answer. I found her reference to James Wood to be particularly important. 

Wood claims, as I understand him, that it is through fiction that we can explore, and then perhaps actually precipitate, new human realities. These realities, discoverable in fiction, in fact exist within the realm of the possible, but that is a realm that we cannot penetrate, at least penetrate deeply, without a guide. It is fiction that provides that service. 

If this insight is true, then that means that we all need fiction. Fiction is a place where the reality of our human freedom is discovered, and made manifest. Wood is quoted by Scott as follows: 

Fiction constitutes "an utterly free space, where anything might be thought, anything uttered." 

Wood's thoughts about fiction are outlined at length in his book, The Nearest Thing to Life, published just this year. Scott faults Wood, however, for ignoring "the mounting evidence that serious reading is in serious danger of being lost to future generations."

Educational experts are concerned that "literacy is declining," and this is at least partly related, according to the evidence Scott cites, to the abandonment of physical books in favor of one form or another of  a "virtual" engagement with words and text.

To the degree that there is a kinesthetic element to learning, that argues for the physical book, which produces a physical contact. I happen to learn that way, myself. My books are marked on and annotated. I think it makes a difference. 

But what makes at least as much difference, in Scott's discussion, is speed. Scott suggests that "slow reading" is better than "fast reading," and refers her readers to Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, by David Mikics. Simon and Garfunkel's advice is not to be overlooked: "slow down you move too fast."

In the end, Scott is most concerned that we read "serious" books, "difficult" books. If literature and fiction are guides by which we can discover the possibilities available to us in the "real world," we had better not fool ourselves into thinking that bringing such realities into being is going to be "easy."

It won't be!

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