“A house without books is like a room without windows.” - Chinese Proverb
It would only be natural that a writer would also be a voracious reader. From a writer’s standpoint, it’s a great way to “study” writing by examining the various techniques many different authors use. But as a human being, reading is also a way to open the windows to the world. Reading is a great way to blow the cobwebs off your mind and let the world in.
It has been said, according to various studies, that reading in America has been on a steady decline for many decades. I’m not sure this is true. On a day to day basis, here in New York City anyway, you see many people reading books, magazines and newspapers on the subways, in the parks, at restaurants and coffee shops. The rise of the superstores like Barnes and Noble and Borders are always packed to the rafters and each of these stores seem to be expanding into every corner of the country. If Americans “aren’t reading” as these studies suggest, I haven’t seen any signs of it. The “Harry Potter” phenomenon is also a clear indication that people are most definitely reading. Never in my life would I ever think people would line up for hours outside a bookstore to buy a book.
However there is clearly a segment of the population who never pick up a book and never read anything. You can usually tell from their attitudes towards life. There are those who love to revel in their ignorance as if it were something to be proud of. It’s an “anti-intellectual” stance that these people take (and a reactionary one, if you ask me.) These are the folks who think reading is for “nerds”, “brainiacs”, “eggheads” and “intellectuals.” Thank God this segment of the population is small but it is they who clearly have that same attitude towards the world in general.
Then there is another segment of the population who do read but only read things that merely validate their already formed world view. This happens on both ends of the political spectrum (and yet another sign how ridiculously polarized our nation is becoming.) Conservatives will devour the latest Ann Coulter and Liberals will read Michael Moore with delight. This segment of the population feel they are arming themselves with “knowledge” but what they are really doing is proving to themselves that their point of view is the “correct one.” After all, this person agrees with me, right? In my travels, I’ve never met a Liberal who’s read Rush Limbaugh nor have I met a Conservative who’s read Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky. What is everyone afraid of?
The third segment of the population are the ones who only read what I call “escapist books”, those who read for purely escapist/entertainment reasons. This is fine, of course. At least they are reading something. I think for a great many readers, a book is no different from watching television or listening to the radio or its just something to pass the time on long airline flights or long waits in the doctor’s office. Over all, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Americans don’t place as much importance on books as other cultures do.
How can you say that? I can almost hear it now. Allow me to explain:
During the 1970s, the works of Eastern European writers such as the Czech author Milan Kundera and Poland’s Tadeusz Konwicki served as a means of rebellion against the Communist regimes common to that part of the world. Many writers from these countries were considered more than just mere writers. They were spokesmen, important figures in the cultural landscape. In Latin America, many writers such as Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa and poets such as Ernesto Cardinal and Roque Dalton, are viewed very much in the same light. Their books were much more than just mere entertainment and a good story. In some cases, they offered people hope where there didn’t seem to be any at all. Many of these writers were highly regarded, especially the poets, who’s work were often viewed as a nation’s “voice” and they are also highly regarded as individuals as well, not only as artists. In the Middle East you have the same phenomenon, where writers are deemed so important to their culture that sometimes their lives are put on the line when they write a book. Salman Rushdie and Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz clearly demonstrate this. Most Americans find this strange since in America most writers are viewed as “entertainers” by the vast majority of the population and not truly important figures in the culture. Name one American novelist who is considered as important to the culture as their European, Latin American or Middle Eastern counterparts.
I also don’t think Americans - meaning the general public and not those who are voracious readers - are even interested in reading books by authors from different cultures - with some exceptions, of course. “Multiculturalism” tried to change this but I think this only changed the reading habits of college students, not the population at large. And this is a very sad thing. Reading these books (whether fiction or non-fiction) from these differing cultures opens a window into how the rest of the world is thinking, feeling, how they live, how they perceive the world. It offers a point of view that one may not normally get and they give a better understanding of the different cultures in which these books originate. Americans, as a culture, tends to be isolated from the rest of the world a lot of the time and sometimes there appears to be a complete lack of interest in how the rest of the world thinks and this has lead to many problems over the decades. There is sometimes this sense of hubris, that Americans are only interested in themselves and couldn’t care less about the rest of the world. Sometimes this criticism is well founded, other times not and sometimes, our foreign policy reflects this. If more Americans read books by authors from these differing cultures perhaps it may begin to foster a better understanding of these cultures and not the dismissal of them you see quite often. This cultural isolation has lead to much conflict and misunderstanding and something as simple as reading the books these cultures have to offer can begin to change that. I firmly believe this.
But when will this happen? After the September 11th attacks a lot of Americans began to explore Islam. They wanted to know what sort of religion would advocate such violence and hatred. Up until that time, I don’t think many Americans knew much about Islam and/or Islamic culture. I was one of them. I, too, began to read the Islamic texts and began to explore their culture to get a better understanding of the times we are now living in. What I discovered was - naturally - that things weren’t so black and white. I don’t advocate what these religious extremists are advocating but I did learn a lot about Islamic culture in general and how much Islam has contributed to humanity as a whole over the centuries. It isn’t just the face of a raving madman fundamentalist. Science, technology, philosophy, invention - all these things have nothing to do with the decrees of an Ayatollah or the rantings of a terrorist madman. In fact, the one thing I did learn from exploring these texts was how much Western civilization would have been destroyed in the bonfires of the Inquisition had it not been for many of these Muslim scientists, scholars and thinkers. We have a lot to thank them for - but when all you see is the face of Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, it’s hard to see that since for most Americans this is the face of Islam. In Western culture, those who view the Church as a repressive, ignorant, backward institution, are often quite mistaken how many Christians contributed to humanity as well. I imagine a lot of people never realized that Copernicus was a Catholic priest.
The point is a little knowledge can often go a long way in order to better understand the world, where we are, where we came from and where we are headed; how there is a bigger world beyond our borders with equally intelligent people who deserve the respect and admiration and not be dismissed as “the other.” Books can do that. They can be that window to the world that if we just took the time to open them, even slightly, a better understanding of all people may actually come to pass.