Philosophical Questions about Reading

As the year comes to a close, it’s natural to become more contemplative, evaluating your past and planning your future. Today I’ve rounded up some articles I’ve read online, which posited these questions about reading that are sure to get you thinking:

Image via Gawker Media

1. How can fiction help you live a better life? Lifehacker reports that reading fiction has tons of benefits, including learning empathy, breeding curiosity, and making you a better storyteller. So how has reading fiction changed your life for the better? Here were my favorite comments on the article:

“Game of Thrones taught me to not be a hero and to eat and drink more.” – ichiban1081

“LOTR taught me that the world is changing for the worse and Elves are leaving because of it.” – PeteRR

For extra credit, answer me this question, from a previously reported NYT blog: how has reading changed your life for the worse?

Image via The Frisky

2. What do you do when the things you love don’t match up with your politics? Rebecca Vipond Brink at The Frisky feels conflicted over her love for Kurt Vonnegut despite his poor representation of women in his writing. It’s one thing to love an author who lived centuries ago, when racism and sexism were more intensely upheld in society, but what happens when you find yourself admiring the work of a modern author who offends you?

I felt the same cognitive dissonance when reading Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, a known homophobic Mormon author. I also love Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, even though I’m aware of the author’s reputation of appealing to misogynistic frat guys and MRAs. I guess my response to the question would be that I try to distance fiction from author when applicable, as not all stories are intended to be autobiographical. And when it comes to the especially offensive, if I must read their work, I find ways around supporting them monetarily by borrowing books from friends or libraries.

3. Have you ever had a relationship end because of a book? The New York Times does it again with another literary brain-teaser. One writer was dumped in part because her boyfriend couldn’t get over her distaste for Hunter S. Thompson, and another learned that many men can’t handle a woman being more preoccupied by reading at times than them. Whether it was a specific book or just reading in general, has anyone split ways over fiction?

When it comes to books, there’s nothing that turns me off more than a man who doesn’t read enough or unenthusiastically reads something just because you like it. Instead of trying to change yourself for someone, it’s best to find partners who share your values. This is why I would dump someone over a book, if need be. If you utterly abhor The Lord of the Rings, just see yourself out. It’s not me, it’s you.

Image via The Telegraph

4. Why does Nicholas Sparks suck so hard? Apparently I am not alone in thinking the king of the romance novel is a total ass. Turns out Jodi Picoult is not a fan, according to this article by The Telegraph. She laments that women’s fiction does not mean that women are your audience, but rather you’re just a women who writes fiction.

When asked whether she ever used a pseudonym, this was her response:

“I did once,” she says. “So let me tell you what happened. I wrote a book under a man’s name. It was years ago, my kids were really tiny. It was when The Bridges of Madison County [by Robert James Waller] had been published. Nicholas Sparks was becoming big [as a romantic novelist]. Please don’t get me started on Nicholas Sparks,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I haven’t had enough caffeine yet.” But anyway.

“I was so angry about these men who had co-opted a genre that women had been slaving over for years. There are some really phenomenal romance writers who get no credit, who couldn’t even get a hardback deal. And these men waltzed in and said, ‘Look what we can do. We can write about love. And we are so special.’ And that just made me crazy.” Her agent tried to sell her pseudonymous book, but was told it was too well written for the male romance genre. “So there you go,” she says, angry, and yet ever-so-slightly pleased.

A-to the freaking-men, Jodi Picoult. I haven’t read any of your books, but maybe it’s about time I started. It looks like we have at least one thing in common: our hatred of the suckage that is Nicholas Sparks.

So let me hear your thoughts on these philosophical questions! I’m all ears!

Advertisements

Can a Book Ever Make a Reader’s Life Worse?

“I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over. . . I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all,” read Mark David Chapman at his 1981 sentencing hearing.

Last week I stressed the importance of reading and lamented how people aren’t doing enough of it. With all of its mental and emotional benefits, you can gain so much from reading that it’s difficult to imagine any downsides.

The New York Times did just that in its piece, “Can a Book Ever Change a Reader’s Life for the Worse?” Writer Leslie Jamison discussed this question by referencing Mark David Chapman’s obsession with The Catcher in the Rye as his motive to assassinate John Lennon, and other murderers who were inspired by literature.

Jamison also revealed that one reader relapsed back into addiction after finishing her novel The Gin Closet about a woman’s struggle with alcoholism. This reader sent Jamison a note filled with blame:

“I picked up this book at a thrift store for 10 cents. That’s right and it was the worst 10 cents I ever spent. So depressing and it placed me in a horrible place. Back to drinking and taking drugs. Even tried to slit my wrists. A terrible dark story about nothing worthwhile. No inspiration or hope anywhere. You should be ashamed of yourself. No good will ever come of this book.”

I can’t imagine the guilt that Jamison must have felt after receiving this letter. Although the addict alone is the cause of her relapse, words are certainly powerful enough to persuade someone to behave or believe a certain way.

I think all media is capable of this power, not just literature. Criminals have also imitated movies, television shows, and video games, so it would be naive to say that books don’t possess the same capability to influence.

However, blaming media for the actions of others is wrong, because those who are mentally sound know the difference between fact and fiction. Books can enhance the dark recesses of our minds, but I think that the direction of influence is important.

I believe that people like Mark David Chapman who possess dangerous urges are drawn to stories that amplify them. Books don’t cause murders; murderers find solace in certain books and will often use them as excuses for acts that they know are wrongful.

The Collector by John Fowles: the inspiration for many crimes, most notoriously for the murders conducted by Leonard Lake, Charles Ng, Christopher Wilder, and Robert Berdella.

As for Jamison’s relapsed reader, there is nothing wrong in recognizing one’s own limitations. People suffering from addiction, depression, eating disorders, or other mental illnesses can often find comfort in reading the stories of others, but many won’t–and that’s okay.

Because I have a vivid imagination and a tendency to suffer chronic nightmares, I avoid horror stories like the plague because I know that they would make my life worse. Even crime dramas like “C.S.I.” trigger me, so I’ve discovered that it’s best just to steer clear of them.

That’s not the fault of horror or crime stories, and I would never suggest censorship to make my life easier. Sure, it’s difficult in October when movie trailers for the latest slasher flick pop up during commercial breaks, but plenty of other people love them. Just because we can’t handle something does not mean we abolish it for everyone else.

So can a book make your life worse? Yes, but only if you let it.