Monday, August 16, 2010

The Value of Reading

A couple weeks ago, when my mom was still here on her seemingly endless vacation, I had a conversation with her that kind of bothered me. It went something like this.
Mom: You know, I was talking to [your older brother], and I don't think he reads more than one book for pleasure in a year.
Me: (Not interested in continuing this conversation) Oh.
Mom: He watches all that TV and doesn't make time for reading. Isn't that sad? I just feel so sorry for him.
I hate it when my mom complains to me about either of my brothers. I've always gotten along with my brothers really well (something that I can't exactly say about my mother). I adore them both. Growing up alongside them, we experienced numerous "kids vs. parents" conflicts (regarding how much time we could spend playing games, how late we could stay up, how much candy we could eat, etc.), and it is ingrained in me to take my brothers' side against my parents. Come to think of it, I frequently feel the need to defend a lot of people from my mother--my dad, her siblings, her business partner, her best friends (seriously, why is she complaining to me about all these people?)--so maybe I just have a reflex to defend people from my mother's unwarranted attacks. In any case, I didn't really want to start an argument with my mother right there because I knew I had to put up with her for another week, and because we were in public (a shopping mall). Still, the fact that she was complaining to me about my brother really bothered me, and I had to say something.

But what defenses did I have for my brother? I knew it would be nigh impossible to argue about the importance of reading with a retired elementary school teacher (and now pre-school teacher) who has made it a significant part of her life's work to teach kids to read. Reading is a crucial skill, after all. I can't imagine how one could function in modern society without at least 8th-grade reading skills (though I hear that there is a surprising illiteracy rate in this country). Also, I'm sure there are tons of studies showing that kids who read for fun do better in school. Reading practice is a critical activity for kids' development, helping them to succeed in their studies, in their future vocations, and in life in general.

But there is a leveling off in reading skills that occurs after a certain point. It's like leveling up in a video game: Fighting monsters that are much stronger than you will level you up fast, but when all the monsters are your level or lower, you don't gain much experience for fighting them. You can win new shiny armor and swords for your inventory if you fight enough of them, but it doesn't make your skills that much better. See, my brother is already a high-level reader. He was always his English teachers' favorite student because everything came so easily to him. He reads fast and very well, is a talented writer, an excellent speller and grammarian, and has an impressive vocabulary that I'm sure is better than my mother's (he's one of those people who picks up words very easily). He used to read a lot, probably most in high school (lots of Star Wars), but also in college. He graduated from a prestigious university with a degree in philosophy. He can read thoroughly and critically and argue clearly and convincingly. I have no doubt that my brother's language skills rank in the top elite percentiles of English speakers. Such skills require some maintenance, but I would think that they are lost much more slowly than they are recovered. I don't think he'd be unable to read anything now that he once was able to read in college or high school. And I don't think reading X number of books a year would have improved his reading skills significantly.

Besides, my mother was not suggesting that my brother tackle one of the great works of literature to improve his reading skills. She wasn't criticizing his academic abilities. She felt sorry for him because he wasn't reading for pleasure. As if his life is somehow emptier because he doesn't read fun books. Forgive me, but this struck me as oddly old-fashioned. For the generations that were raised on books, whose youth would indeed have been narrow and devoid of adventure were it not for their beloved novels, it may seem like a world without these exciting novels is a depressing one. Reading a book broadens a person's horizons, takes a person where he cannot otherwise go, and thus enriches his life. There is no Frigate like a Book/To take us Lands away...

That's so 19th century. Now, I loved reading Harry Potter as much as anyone, and I think reading the books was a far superior experience to watching any of the movies. But Lord of the Rings? I'm not so sure. In fact, I think I had more fun watching the movies (please don't shoot me). Modern entertainments, not just books, can be enriching. My brother plays video games--games with rich storylines and interactive plots that force the player to make challenging decisions. He reads graphic novels. He watches movies. He watches a LOT of TV. Really, does reading yet another formulaic Janet Evanovich murder mystery improve my mother's life that much more than watching a season of Mad Men enriches my brother's?

I recognize the main advantage that reading has over these other forms of storytelling is that it leaves all the images and sounds up to the audience. It thus engages a greater part of the imagination, and each reader will have a different experience. I guess my brother is missing out on this. But let's return for a moment to the reason why he watches so much TV (and by that I mean he follows upwards of 25 weekly shows): His goal is to become a writer on a TV show. He watches not only the TV shows that would naturally grab him, but also the "hot" shows with a lot of buzz or a lot of Emmy nominations so he knows what styles are popular and can learn from the best. So he's not just being a couch potato. More more importantly, though, what else do you think he's doing in his attempt to become a TV writer? He is writing scripts, of course.

My brother spends most of his "work" day (he is currently unemployed) writing and honing his scripts. He has a large number of spec scripts for TV pilots that he is either circulating or refining in preparation for circulation. Essentially all of these have some element of sci-fi or fantasy. He dreams up these exciting worlds, interesting and unique characters to populate these worlds, and writes a tight, funny, hour-long script to tell the beginning of their stories. And he probably thinks a lot about what future adventures they might have. He also has some scripts for current TV shows (e.g. Chuck, Burn Notice) that he sends around in hopes of catching someone's eye. The characters and the world are already set, but he creates his own adventures for them, and he has to hear their voices and see their actions in the situations he has made for them. TV writing is an extremely tough field to get into, but it's his dream job, so he's giving it a go. And one of the main reasons he likes to write? It lets him exercise his imagination.

All these arguments buzzed around my head as I tried to figure out how to defend my brother from my mom's attacks. I didn't think any of the arguments that in any way seemed to devalue reading in the modern world* would work with her. So I went with the redirection.
Me: When was the last time you wrote for pleasure?
Mom: Huh? Well, what do you mean?
Me: He writes all the time. When was the last time you wrote for pleasure?
Mom: Like what? Like, emails? I think writing emails is fun. I write emails.
Ah, emails. Three-paragraph regurgitations of recent events to keep her family and friends in the loop.
Me: I feel sorry for you.
I'm not sure I really feel sorry for her; it's not like my blog posts stretch my imagination much. But it was a small victory against her condescension. Or it would have been, had she not been immediately distracted by the Jamba Juice menu. Count on my mom to change the subject as soon as she's not winning anymore.

* For the record, I love reading. I wish I had time for more of it. When I think about it, most of my favorite stories and characters are contained in books, and books alone. Don't worry about convincing me about the value of reading. I just think that if my brother is happy with what he's doing, he doesn't need my mother to feel sorry for him. And she could probably do with some new computer games to challenge her mind than yet another round of Spider.


SparklingBlue said...

This is also why I not only read fantasy novels, but partake in fantasy movies and video games--so I can learn what works and what doesn't, and apply that to Shokiyu as I build it.

Eleni said...

Sounds like a good idea :) Variety is always nice, anyway.

Ruth said...

I see advantages to both reading & watching good tv. There's something in, say, BSG that one can't quite find in a book. There's the music, the specific interpretations, all the stuff that our minds have to fill in for us.

Of course, reading a book exercises our minds to fill that kind of thing in. But I think both are good.

Seems to me that if your brother is writing, he's got to be exercising all those brain muscles that reading does.

Angel said...

As 1/3 kids in a home where mom doesn't understand logic, I know quite a bit about protecting my siblings from good ol' mom. You did a good thing there!

Also, while I could come up with a rebuttal to your comment on my blog I'm just too lazy to do it. I did want to point out that giving your opinion will never make me more pissed off. I value it and appreciate it so keep it up!

Sebastian said...

The problem with reading is that it takes SO LONG! At least for me.

Having said that, I don't know if it's more 'efficient' to watch televisual content, or to travel, or to read.

But then again, that's me... trying to best-utilize my time...

Ah, wait, this was about PLEASURE... Hrm...

cassey said...

To me it seems as if your mom just has a hard time understanding how anyone could not love reading, so she just phrased it badly. I love reading, and do so for pleasure almost daily, so I get where she's coming from, but she should have done it better :)That said movies and tv are great too :)

Hezabelle said...

I'd like to say there's room for all of these at once (writing, tv/movies AND reading), but who has that kind of time?

Eleni said...

Ruth - I think he probably is. If we had time to do everything, that would be nice, but in a busy world, it's not unreasonable to cut back.

Angel - Glad someone understands :)

And good; I probably should have put it down and commented in the morning when my head was a little clearer. Oh well.

Seb - Some people can really speed read, but yeah, it takes me a long time to get through a book. Though if it takes, say, 15 hours to get through a season of a TV show, how does that content compare to the content one can cover with 15 hours of reading? Maybe more story but with less detail? I don't know.

Cassey - I was pretty sure she was being condescending, as if the fact that he didn't love reading made him a lesser person. Maybe you're right, but yeah, she could have phrased it better.

Hez - Writing, TV/movies, reading--and VIDEO GAMES. But you're right, there aren't enough hours in the day. My reading the past year has mostly been scientific papers and textbooks. Not so much pleasure there :(

Greg said...

I write for fun. I wrote my own RPG for fun, used donated art and put it up on the web.

Check it out:

Of course, you need time for reading! ;)

Eleni said...

Hi Greg - That's really cool. A great way to exercise your imagination ;)