Sunday, August 7, 2016

Why We Read

Infectious Reading

I recently read an interesting article by the ever-interesting novelist Neil Gaiman about the importance of reading. Often, I see posts on Facebook and other places wherein people fret about the younger generations not appreciating reading and preferring to play video games. This fretting flies in the face of huge sales of Harry Potter books and many other adventure novels aimed at children and teens.

I'm of a mind that there will always be avid readers, just as surely as there will always be those who can't bring themselves to read more than a caption under a photograph or instructions on how to play a new game.

Gaiman quotes Rebecca Solnit, who asserted that "a book is a heart that beats in the chest of another." That's so very true, and it's why many people not only enjoy books, but also films, TV, and video games. A book, however, gives you a wholly different journey because, when done well, it allows you to know someone else's mind, feelings, and experiences. You don't just "watch." You live and breathe with a character or characters.

As Gaiman puts it, "books are the way we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth..."

He cautioned against preaching and writing what you wouldn't be that interested in reading. Difficult tasks. That might surprise some, but writers know it's true. The need to "preach" hinders us all. We have beliefs and truths we want to present in every novel, but if we hammer home these "lessons," we risk alienating our readers. Likewise, every writer has written "fluff" to fill out a book. Fluff is usually scenes that go on too long and serve no real purpose other than to add pages, relating information the writer has recently learned and feels compelled to share even it's boring to others, or fascinating facts that end up stopping the book's narrative. To take the editing pen and strike out paragraphs and whole pages takes courage, but is necessary. Like cutting out a cancerous growth.

Lessons or ideas should be sprinkled in, rather than poured into book pages. Otherwise, you will over-season and ruin your original, good recipe for a well-told tale.

In my new novel. SOLITARY HORSEMAN, I dealt with three "lessons." With so many, it was a delicate mission to keep them under rein so they didn't trample my story. Throughout, I had to remind myself why we read -- to immerse ourselves in another place, time, and body, so that we emerge different than when we entered that fictive world. Also, and this is no small thing, to entertain and delight. When I write, I craft scenes that I hope will compel readers to keep turning the pages, but also to elicit smiles, frowns, and maybe even a giggle or longing sigh. This happens when readers "become" the characters; when they forget where they are and what they're doing and take breath for breath with the character in the book.

I recall when I read THE STAND by Stephen King. In it, a deadly disease was killing off most of the population and symptoms started off with people coughing. I had been reading the book during my break at work. When I went back to work, a co-worker walked past me and coughed. My heart froze and my gaze snapped to the person as a sickly fear slithered through my mind with the thought, He's infected! Of course, in the next instant I was back in my own world and laughing at myself even as I marveled at Mr. King's ability to wrap me up so tightly in his fictive world.

That my friends, is talent. And that is also why we read.

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