This article to appear in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch.
I started and put down In this House of Brede, Brideshed Revisited, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Shakespeare’s Complete Works (do not make the mistake of starting with “Titus Andronicus”). I read Flannery O’Conner’s Manners and Mystery, a quick read about writing. Still, I wanted something I could sink my teeth into. As an adolescent, I read for hours. Those worlds of Austin and Bronte were my worlds. I relished the characters and the stories, though many things I did not understand. Dissatisfied in my quest for another novel, I decided to turn to an old standby, Charles Dickens. This is how I met David Copperfield.
750 pages. And I finished it, 750 pages later. At first, I attempted to read during the day. I found little progress or pleasure amid the interruptions. So I took my reading to bed, without the phone or computer or children nearby. For one to two hours I read, ten, twenty, fifty pages. At times, it dragged on in the labor of Mr. Macawber’s monologues. Other times it flew, and I felt drawn into the love of Agnes, the heroism of Mr. Peggoty and life lessons of Mr. Copperfield himself.
To leave these characters is more than leaving a habit. When one engages in deep reading of great literature, the characters come to life. You know them. You love them. You are as sorry to leave them as it seems they may be to leave you, at the end of such a long novel. I rush to the finish, and relish the satisfaction of a Dicksonian ending, but I am sorry to have no more.
This is the way in which deep reading can teach empathy. We are brought along someone’s journey, asked to walk in their shoes, as Ms. Hepburn defines the term in the movie Funny Face. Reading occupies the mind in a way watching a movie cannot. The time it takes to know these characters, and in classic literature, to see them grow works in our minds as relationships in real life. You not only feel what they feel, you strive to anticipate what may happen, based on the events and personalities you observe as you read.
Watching movies and even very good television is a passive effort. After enough seasons, you may know and feel attached to those characters. Discussions of the particular Netflix show will drive that connection even deeper. Nevertheless, the encounter itself does not settle as deep in the mind as it does with reading.
It is a priceless effort. But how can one find the time or space in which to engage it? Consider the time you spend online or watching television. There may be some space there. I am too tired, we say, I just want to relax. What truly relaxes us? A drink in the evening may seem to relax us, but it can negatively impact sleep. Social media and television helps us vegetate. Passively feels like it should relax us. Yet it does not. The screen lights, the noise of electronics, cannot calm us interiorly.
What is the next objection? I cannot find anything I want to read. This is a difficulty. The hot right-now novel may read easily, and may engage you, but to truly gain the great benefits of reading, one must read a great work. In a classic literature, characters are more deeply and thoroughly formed. Thus they can come alive and stand on their own feet. In lesser novels, a screenwriter can flesh out these people. In well-written books, no movie can satisfy the conception our mind has made.
Find recommendations where you gain. Love good period TV? I recommend Dickens. Love female driven romantic comedies? Try Austen. Love Sci-Fi? H.G. Wells has goodies for you. Pick up those high school novels you vaguely remember reading half of. See what you think now. They are an excellent place to start. The American cultural cannon possesses many great books.
In the way of novels, I do not know what I will read next. But having broken the habit of a nightly binge watch I am excited to find what other places my mind can go, and the characters on the journey.