“What, exactly, is the point of reading, especially if it’s fiction?”

A friend asked the question, and it got me to wondering. Why do some of us elect to spend thousands of hours of our admittedly short lives with our noses buried in books? What real gain is made by getting to know imaginary people doing imaginary acts and speaking imaginary words?

Some of the standard answers sound plausible. Fiction allows us to experience feelings other than our own, gives us a chance to live multiple lives, fills in emotional blanks. A good story takes us out of our humdrum concerns and lifts our battered spirits. Seeing into the minds of others satisfies the voyeuristic itch. Well-chosen words may help us define and understand certain vague but recurrent yearnings.

Then, too, a well-drawn character bodies forth aspects of ourselves that might otherwise stay hidden. Don Quixote allows us to smile at our pretensions, reminds us not to be so grim. Ebenezer Scrooge calls us to account for our tendency toward miserliness. Huck Finn helps us find the courage to be openhearted. Elmer Gantry warns us of the quicksands of self-righteousness. King Lear whispers that we must stay flexible and forgiving, lest we share his lonely fate.

Taken as part of a continuum, literature can be considered entertainment, a way to pass time. A movie, a book, a crossword puzzle, a chess game—all serve to while away our leisure hours while keeping us focused and intact. Most of today’s works make no claim to lasting insight. In America alone, some thousand-plus new titles are printed weekly; the number grows larger each year. Half of all fiction is categorized as romance. And slightly over half the copies of all books printed end up in the shredder, to be recycled as paper pulp. Yet the urge to read and to be entertained continues unabated.

Why do some of us write books?

The obvious answer is in hope of making money. But I think it’s more than that. Maybe it’s a way to mark our passing, a “Kilroy was here” with more words. Or maybe it’s a way to counteract the dreadful sense of evanescence that mocks one’s sense that life is important. How can we spend a lifetime learning how things work, learning how to love and appreciate the miracles that surround us, storing up thousands of treasured memories, if, with our passing, everything we know and value is erased? It’s true we carry forward the memory of those we survive, and in turn live on in the minds of those who outlive us. But these memories barely survive two generations, and rarely consist of anything more than anecdotes or a generalized sense of love or hate.

Had Dickens not written A Christmas Carol, not a shred of his imagined story would have survived him. Had Shakespeare turned his talents to politics or trade, a significant portion of western culture wouldn’t exist, and the English language would be lacking hundreds of important words and phrases.

The novelist, the playwright, the filmmaker and poet, capture a sense of the way things were and transmit their perceptions forward through time. They are, in this sense, the memory cells of the species. Without them, the past soon fades into obscurity. Having taken to heart the message in Dylan Thomas’s poem, they rage against the dying of the light, and refuse to go gently into that good night.

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