Sunday, May 18, 2014

Reading as a gateway drug

Last week, a friend left a strongly worded note on my Facebook wall, blaming me for her latest book addiction and semi-jokingly demanding an apology.

In the comment exchange that followed her post, other friends chimed in, similarly blaming me for various book addictions. One wrote, "I'm pretty sure Rosalyn is a gateway drug dealer . . ."

And I couldn't have been happier with the charge.

(Although I should probably clarify that she was talking about *books* not *actual drugs*).

As a book addict myself, there are few things that make me happier than proselytizing my favorite books. Because books make me happy, like being wrapped in the best kind of hug. Good books make me joyful.

And really terrific books change me.

But my friend's accusation got me thinking. If books are a gateway drug, what are they a gateway to?

Reading is a gateway to imagination.

Reading exposes us to other worlds, other ways of thinking, and unlike television, books do not provide these worlds fully fleshed out. Reading is interactive--it requires our cooperation to build up and realize these worlds (whether fantasy or aspects of our real world that we're not as familiar with).

Reading is a gateway to empathy.

In a lovely speech to British librarians, Neil Gaiman defends the reading of fiction as a "gateway drug to reading" because anything that gets kids to read will help them, later, read and process other more complicated texts. But he also endorses reading because it helps create empathy.

I currently live in a pretty homogeneous small-town community. In my daily life, I'm not exposed to a lot of different lifestyles or ways of viewing the world. But through books, I can begin to empathize with people who live in different parts of the world, different socio-economic worlds, different time periods, even different worlds entirely.

Reading is a gateway to connection.

The epigraph to E. M. Forster's Howard's End reads "only connect." And I think books allow us to do this. Much like developing empathy, books allow us to find connections with other people who seem to be, on the surface, unlike us. In the movie Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis tells a student that we read to know that we're not alone.

But I don't think we have to enumerate the positive effects of reading to find it worthwhile. After all, as Lee Siegel wrote in the New Yorker, there's a danger in trying to justify reading by quantifying its effects in material or social terms.
Fiction’s multifarious nature is why so many people have attributed so many effects to imaginative literature, some of them contradictory: catharsis (Aristotle); dangerous corruption of the spirit (Plato); feverish loosening of morals (Rousseau); redemptive escape from personality (Eliot); empowering creation beyond the boundaries of morality (Joyce). Fiction ruined Don Quixote, young Werther, and Emma Bovary, but it saved Cervantes, Flaubert, and Goethe.

For me, even above the pleasure of connecting with characters and books is the pleasure of connecting with another real life reader over the books we love. Tell me that you love Georgette Heyer, or Dorothy Sayers, or Connie Willis, and I'm sure we will be friends for life.

Mostly, I think I read (and I believe this is true of most readers) because reading takes me out of myself--and because I enjoy it.

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