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Reading is for lovers!

By Bernard Chapin
web posted March 31, 2003

My father passed away three years ago today, and there is no superior way to memorialize him than to celebrate the act of reading. No other activity better embodied the man. The same can be said of my mother and, gratefully, about her two offspring as well. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on my father's lap during the dawn hours of the early 1970's while having read to me (and also gradually sounding out myself) the "Munster" series of childhood books. Those silent morning moments are times that I still find myself awake in, and I always treasure the peace and concentration that they yield. My father's diligence, as opposed to the schools that I write so much about, made his son a fluent reader by the age of three. It has been a gift from which I will forever profit.

When asked what our hobbies are, how many of us are slightly shamed to admit that one of them is reading? People's faces drop and they that start to regard you as a thoroughly boring person or worse, a pariah, after you tell them. I have often heard befuddled responses like "Well, what is it you read?" I tell them "everything" and it's basically true but, of course, not enough of everything. I just wish I had more time but then again we all wish for more time.

A sad fact of modern life is that the books and authors that one reads are usually far more interesting than the majority of the people you interact with on a daily basis. This is a very elitist statement but if being elitist means being proud of working harder than others and being more serious than others than I'll accept with pride the put-down of "elitist." I'll also document, for the first time ever, the long-held secret credo of the "low-thrill-seeking personality" and it is- that some of the most thrilling rides I've ever had have been across the printed page.

A magnificent read can take you on a journey to the aspect highest levels of human exhilaration without the life-threatening risks that bungee jumping, ecstasy, or LSD entail. It can also close the gap between yourself and others. Ronald Reagan's mother gave him advice fit for the legend he turned out to be when she stated "if you learn to love reading you'll never be alone." [A Different Drummer, p. 166] He never was and her advice holds true at several levels of interpretation. You are a more attractive person to others when you have something productive or unique to say (assuming your not a pedant). This is particularly true today as more and more our lives are Oprahized with unnecessary chatter that is of no use even to the people who speak it. How many hours of self-help relationship counseling could be avoided by the simple words of Heinrich Boll: "her voice did sound like marriage at all." Further, the lessons that one can absorb from the struggles of his main character, Hans Schnier, in The Clown can save the reader pain and suffering in the future. Spending your time reading as opposed to watching television can double your IQ (okay, I have no evidence of that but wouldn't it be great if it were true?)

Further justifying Mrs. Reagan's statement is the fact that the magnificent narrative voices that one has read will stay with you forever. Many of the words and phrases from the past still resonate twenty years later. When watching the film versions of The Lord of the Rings numerous dormant passages of Tolkien's epic that I thought I'd forgotten have instanteously come flooding back as if I were the narrator dipping a madelaine into tea in Proust's novel, Swann's Way. I often think of the stories and ideas I've encountered in the "down time" of my days and that is another of reason why those who read are never alone. When we're in a room by ourselves our brains hum, spin and produce large waves based on the tales and parables we've digested.

Reading is a daily act of humility. It is the constant admission that others know more than we do. While we read our fingers and eyes document that we are not the only or highest authority on any subject. I like to think it is also a religious testament because we acknowledge that there are truths that lie beyond us for which we must forever search. One of the finest writers and artists I've ever read, W. Somerset Maugham, put forth a brilliant observation that applies to reading but more so to our existence in its totality. In The Summing Up, a book written after six decades of tremendous accomplishment, Maugham gives us one more grand sentence "…there is only one thing about which I am certain, and this is that there is very little about which one can be certain." [p.12] No more clever aphorism could be crafted.

Reading is a microcosm of human adaptation as the more you read the more your previous views meld with those you today encounter and the more you will be a different person with more sophisticated opinions than you had at the outset. There is no one as self-righteously sure of their opinions as an 18 year-old undergraduate, and it is no coincidence that there are few who are as poorly educated.

Post-modernism has contaminated much of the intellectual environment as we constantly meet crunchy Fritos who want to say that reading comic books or magazines is just as meaningful an endeavor as reading books produced by our greatest minds. They'll ask you "What is a great mind anyway? Who determines who's great?" Well, let us allow Dr. Erich Fromm to answer their question with cogent advice on how to live one's life. It can be found in his The Art of Loving, which is a 120 page excelsior May Day parade of observations on how to lead a meaningful life. His arguments skewer the grade school minds that dominate our society today.

It is important to avoid bad company. By bad company I do not refer to people who are vicious and destructive; one should avoid their company because their orbit is poisonous and depressing. I mean also the company of zombies, of people whose thoughts and conversation are trivial; who chatter instead of talk, and who assert cliché opinions instead of thinking. [p.103]

Amen! How many of us are not browbeaten by pointless, shallow co-workers or associates who have nothing to say and nothing to contribute but insist on demoralizing us with their infinite string of syllables everyday? If they read more and spoke less the world would truly be a better place.

Yes maybe I was a little misleading by echoing the state motto of Virginia in my title for this piece but my position is that loving life is the most profound act of love. To read is to know life and to know life is to love life. Even if this is not true in every instance (Pol Pot's a counter-example) there is much to enjoy in the challenge of the process of educating one's self even when the topic is unpleasant. Also, if enough of us read and familiarize ourselves with villains like Pol Pot then the less the chance of there being any more villains like Pol Pot.

Bernard Chapin is a school psychologist and adjunct faculty member in Chicago. He can be reached at emeritus@flash.net.

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