Writers, I’d like to talk about reading. Growing up, it was the form of entertainment universally endorsed by adults. Kids could watch too much TV or spend too many hours playing video games, but rarely did one get in trouble for reading too many books. (Although I’m sure some of you reading this have some stories to tell.)
Currently, we have access to a seemingly infinite horizon of storytelling vehicles—movies, series, video games, virtual reality sims, podcasts, archives of other forms of media, as well as the very obvious, books. While the loads of content out there can make finding the “digitally worthwhile” analogous to hacking one’s way through an ad infested jungle, the truth of the matter is that never before have there been so many high quality resources so readily available to so very many people.
We are living in “the golden age of content.” In addition to standard streaming services like Netflix, Kanopy, and YouTube, the pandemic forced many traditionally low-tech institutions to place full productions online. Museum lectures, plays, concerts, even departmental recitals featuring some of the world’s best young musicians are now readily accessible online.
True, the internet still basically represents the roving id of humanity, but there’s some phenomenal work now crowding it out. If you still have your doubts, check out Dracula, the ballet.
So, where does reading fit within this brave, new world?
Sure, we could debate the merits of films over books, video games over films…but, as one fan has inevitably articulated, “A life without Star Wars is not worth living.”
In 2019, Poland became the first country to add a video game (This War Of Mine) to their educational curriculum. Clearly, different mediums have their own unique ways of making powerful impressions on people.
As such, rather than trying to list the merits of reading over other forms of media, I would like to address the very specific, often overlooked aspect of reading as a creative act.
To me, one of the most fascinating things about both reading and writing is this idea that the reader creates their own, personal version of the work they are engaging with.
For example, take the following passage from The Yellow Wallpaper:
The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering, unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
Despite the perfect, evocative specificity of Perkins’s words, two people reading this quote would each still create their own version of this scene, complete with differing tones of yellow. In one reader’s interpretation, this might be the faded yellow of a nursery. The other might visualize the room as once having a cheerful, sunny yellow that now stands nowhere near that intention. Similarly, each person is dispersing the splotches of orange and sulfuric yellow to best fit the mental model they are developing word by word, phrase by phrase.
It is in these moments that the reader is doing something that even the writer can’t: creating a scene from the chips of experience that they have personally gathered and collected through interacting with the world. It is the reader that elevates the book to its full potential.
Judgment Calls in Reading
To expand on the idea of reading as a creative act, consider the difference between reading a book and listening to its audio counterpart. Again, we are not debating the value of one medium over another.
Rather, I am asking you to consider how the meaning of text may be changed with just the addition of inflection. The fairly simple question: “Is he coming with us?” becomes quite different when either of the pronouns are emphasized.
Is he coming with us? = Is he, the guy who hasn’t showered in two weeks, actually coming out with us, regular users of soap?
Is he coming with us? = Is he coming with us? …Because I already have 5 people crammed into the Porsche my Dad’s letting me borrow and I’m starting to get worried about space.
When reading a book, it is the reader who makes these subtle judgment calls. The reader serves as actor, producer, director, sound artist, and more—all with one superior advantage: having a really GREAT script from which to work.
Audience Participation Required
While we have many mediums for storytelling, reading requires a certain form of deep processing that others do not. A movie or podcast ensues regardless of your presence in the room; the book only gets finished with audience participation.
It is this type of experience that gives a unique dimension to reading as a creative act. When we process words, we attend to our own lives in a closer way. When we read, we adventure into a new world crafted from the world we have already known. This elaborative processing makes reading much more of a nurturing activity rather than what can become one of passive consumption. It is for this reason that reading continues to be one of the most humanly rewarding forms of recreation.
Because I could not possibly say it better myself, I offer you the thoughts of 1991 Mann Booker prize winner Ben Okri, taken from his speech, “Books Can Bring Solace in Troubled Times,” given at the 2019 Hay Festival in Wales:
…it is readers who make the book…Writers have monumental responsibilities in the execution of their art, but readers also have great responsibilities…Books are a dialogue between souls…The reader should bring the best in themselves to meet the best in the writer’s work. …The energies or the serenity within books is meant, finally, to multiply the energies within the reader, or to deepen their serenity. The true destination of books is life, and the living.
As emerging technologies continue to develop, and even more vehicles for story come into being, we must ask ourselves how may we best continue this “dialogue between souls”? When choosing a medium for leisure, it is worthwhile to ask if the activity will enrich one’s interior landscape, edify the cognitive sanctuary from which may we retreat from the world so that we may come to understand our place within it, and thereby make the actions of our lives meaningful, regardless of magnitude.
Melissa Haas is the author and illustrator of Catula: The Misadventures of Dracula’s Cat and The Night Before Christmas (NOW WITH CATS), among others. Follow Catula’s whereabouts on Instagram @CatulaTheCat. If you’re interested in downloading free coloring pages or seeing Margaret Atwood with a blowtorch, check out more Leisure Learning related content at www.MelissaHaasCreates.com.