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Why Do You Read That Stuff?
Copyright © By Ben Whisman. All Rights Reserved.
- Name and Markup;
“Why do you read that stuff?” I get asked that sometimes. Some people like to read. Some don’t. Some don’t like certain kinds of stories, genres. But it’s a question that doesn’t seem to get the attention that, “Why do you write that stuff?” does. People ask writers why they write all the time.
What got me thinking, “Why do you read that stuff?” was the response of a well known writer. She and two writer friends have all been through a very tough year, and their planned work was way behind the schedule they’d set for themselves. This affects their income, besides their sense of obligation and pride of work. She was genuinely a bit embarrassed at the understanding and kindness from readers at her blog, who have followed all this. Of course, she’s proud of her craft. But the personal affection touched her. After all, her readers are busy leading their own lives far away. Some have met her or correspond regularly. Others are simply fans. All are there because they like what she writes.
So, at the risk of being obvious (or repetitive) “Why do you read that stuff?”
I read “that stuff” because I like to read stories. It satisfies something inside. I’m a bookworm anyway. I like reading, period. I’ve always liked reading stories. Of course, you say, but why? I like the great ideas. I like the adventure. I like all those things that I don’t get to experience in my daily life. The past, the present, the future; that brave, remarkable hero; that fearsome monster; that dire villain; or perhaps the ordinary things of life made extraordinary by putting them in focus. “Oh, the places you will go! Oh, the things you will see!” says one quote. (And my inner editor says that needs a citation, thank you. It’s from Dr. Seuss, I believe, an underrated philosopher.)
That’s very true. I will never be a far-future starship officer or a medieval knight or any of a thousand other characters. I’m male, so the female side of things is something I can’t quite directly experience. But I can read about it. Through books, I can experience times and places, cultures and people, who I can’t in person. Unless I’m very much mistaken, it’s unlikely I’ll ever meet a dinosaur or an elf or any more unlikely beings. I am far more likely to meet ordinary people going about their everyday lives, the same as I do, in a hectic, mind-numbing, sometimes discouraging routine.
Why wouldn’t I want to lose myself for a few hours in a story, imagining what it’s like to be on a quest or solving a mystery or fighting some terrible force? Okay, maybe not fighting that terrible force; it’s bad enough I fight daily to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads, and sometimes it’s in question whether I’ll win the day...and sometimes, I don’t win the day’s battle, or I feel like I’ve lost it. Other times, I’m elated. That is the stuff of stories too.
Stories and storytelling are like theater acting and movies. They are a kind of “Let’s Pretend, Let’s Play!” for adults. For a few hours, we can pretend we are those characters in that story. We can join the hearty band and be someone else and leave our own troubles behind for something that seems somehow more tangible, more reachable, as fantastic as it might be. In stories, it is something we can understand on a direct, gut level.
I may not know how to beat the evils of the modern world, and if “evil” seems a strong or strange word for it, I’d ask, haven’t you seen the news lately? It’s a harsh world out there. Just take a walk down in the projects, if you don’t believe me. On second thought, be careful about that. You might not make it back. The suburbs aren’t much different in that, anymore, nor the hallowed halls of governments and corporations.
But in a story, I can best the villains and be proud of it, and if, in that story, I punch someone out or fight with sword and shield or laser rifle or mastery of the martial arts, I don’t have to apologize to anyone. Heck, if I want to be the international spy or the daring thief, I can do that too. Or hmm, perhaps I’m the dashing lover who woos the lovable, um, yeah.... No, our rating for this piece is safely “General Audiences.” But I can tease about it.
It is all grist for the mill of the imagination. We need entertainment, a good story around the campfire when the night closes in before sleep. We need those ideas to spark our imaginations, to get us to think in new, unimagined ways, to work out our problems, the things that keep us guessing, and to remind us of what is right, and the need to keep vigilant against what is wrong. Oh, you may say, how naïve, the real world isn’t some storybook fairy tale. No, it isn’t, you’re right. The real world is far more messy, far more uncertain and dangerous. If that seems like overstating it, go to any courtroom or any emergency room or any soup kitchen or homeless shelter and then you tell me just how far I’ve exaggerated things.
We live in very modern times, most of us who will ever get to read this. Computers, big cities, all the conveniences. But the same old human problems and questions and natural risks are out there every day, and we face them every time we do anything in life. Then there are all those imponderable, unanswerable questions, the ones we try to answer anyway, because that’s what we humans do. We will still think about it all, try to make sense of the senseless, and find some way to get through it all.
And somewhere out there, this very moment, there is someone thinking something brand new, never thought of before, and someone who will invent a new solution, something that, unbelievably, works.
Also somewhere out there is a handsome squire or beautiful damsel, each of them in distress, imperiled by monsters in human or inhuman form, perhaps some faceless, nameless peril, hatred or poverty or sickness. That damsel and that squire need our help, our willingness to take up arms and fight off the monsters and villains that beset them, including, perhaps, ourselves at risk to meet the foe.
Many writers and storytellers and thinkers have given me great enjoyment through my childhood, teenage years, and adulthood. It’s why I am who I am, for good or ill, and it’s why I do what I do, dealing with words and images and the like.
It’s why I read that stuff.
Oh, I know I haven’t said anything much that hasn’t been said before, but I felt it was worth saying. Without those authors out there, telling stories, life would be a little less amazing, a lot more drab and mired in the muck of routine and real-world dangers. It does not matter much if they are professionally published or out there writing amateur fic on the web or stuck in their notebooks. Well, it does matter if nobody else gets to read them. That matters a lot. One of those amateurs scribbling away is every bit as good as those bestselling pros, and all they need is an audience to read and tell about them. And by the way, those bestselling authors still have to pay the rent or mortgage, the grocery bills and utilities, and their monthly healthcare costs. Those real-world perils are out there.
So go out and buy a printed book or an ebook, curl up and get immersed in the story, and fight off a bad guy or a monster or an evil force. You can do it. It’s why you read that stuff.