If you are a reader of books (not just blogs), these days you are apparently in the minority. Some alarming statistics I've run into on various web sites claim that:
- 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
- 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
- 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
- 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
Schall mentions all this as a lead-up to his consideration of a question that I think is an important one: Does it matter if we read fiction? (Notice, he does not insist that it be "important literature" or "timeless classics," just "fiction," including poetry.) I think the answer is, "Absolutely, yes!" I know plenty of people who think of themselves as "readers," but proudly proclaim, "Oh, I only read non-fiction," as if that were a virtue. On the contrary, I can't help but think of it as a character defect, revealing an undeveloped moral imagination. Why? Well, Aristotle gave an answer that I think is as valid today as it was nearly 2,400 years ago, in his Poetics. Aristotle, of course, was a philosopher, not a poet, but he believed in the ethical value of poetry (by which he meant what we mean by "literature" -- in his day, all "fiction" was written in poetic verse). Comparing poetry ("fiction") to history ("nonfiction"), he says:
So it looks like Aristotle would not have been too impressed by those people who proudly proclaim that they read only "nonfiction."It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen -- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims ... (Poetics IX)
An Experiment in Criticism, classified as "good books." Lewis proposed that we define "good books" not by something inherent in the book but by what sort of reading it provokes and rewards. A "good" book is the one that allows the reader to find something new with each reading and re-reading, to which the reader returns time and again, a story that provokes reflection, and rewards reflection with discovery, which in turn causes delight. Good books provoke good reading, taking us out of ourselves while we read and returning us to ourselves, at the end of our reading, somehow enlarged:
This is not to say that to say, of course, that a good book cannot be read badly; rather, the important distinction is that good books "permit" a reading that enlarges the reader, whereas bad books make such reading impossible. The good book meets Aristotle's criterion of being "philosophical"because it allows us to gain new insight into some truth about the human condition, the way of the world, etc.One of the things we feel after reading a great work is "I have got out." Or from another point of view, "I have got in"; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside. ... We therefore delight to enter into other men's beliefs (those, say, of Lucretius or Lawrence) even though we think them untrue. And into their passions, though we think them depraved, like those, sometimes, of Marlowe or Carlyle. And also into their imaginations, though they lack all realism of content.
|Matthias Stom, |
Young Man Reading by Candlelight