At this moment, in this place, the shifting action potential in my neurons cascade into certain arrangements, patterns, thoughts; they flow down my spine, branch into my arms, my fingers, until muscles twitch and thought is translated into motion; mechanical levers are pressed; electrons are rearranged; marks are made on paper.
At another time, in another place, light strikes the marks, reflects into a pair of high-precision optical instruments sculpted by nature after billions of years of random mutations; upside-down images are formed against two screens made up of millions of light-sensitive cells, which translate light into electrical pulses that go up the optic nerves, cross the chiasm, down the optic tracts, and into the visual cortex, where the pulses are reassembled into letters, punctuation marks, words, sentences, vehicles, tenors, thoughts.
The entire system seems fragile, preposterous, science fictional.
― Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
The worst way to read, he said, is with the thought that you do not have enough time. The only way to read is in the knowledge that there is an infinite amount of time stretching ahead, and that if one wishes to taste only a few sentences per day one is free to do so.
I do feel that literature should be demystified. What I object to is what is happening in our era: literature is only something you get at school as an assignment. No one reads for fun, or to be subversive or to get turned on to something. It’s just like doing math at school. I mean, how often do we sit down and do trigonometry for fun, to relax. I’ve thought about this, the domination of the literary arts by theory over the past 25 years — which I detest — and it’s as if you have to be a critic to mediate between the author and the reader and that’s utter crap. Literature can be great in all ways, but it’s just entertainment like rock’n’roll or a film. It is entertainment. If it doesn’t capture you on that level, as entertainment, movement of plot, then it doesn’t work.
We are known, appreciated, even cherished by our favorite writers; every word of our favorite books seems to have been written for us. Within their sentences and paragraphs, those writers are forever available, forever patient, including us in their compassionate recognition of the impossible, exhausting complexity of being human (those “many thousand” selves), never ignoring us or abandoning us or finding us dull. It’s you, they whisper, as we turn their pages, you are the one I’ve been waiting to tell everything to.
Reading history is good for all of us. If you know history, you know that there is no such thing as a self-made man or self-made woman. We are shaped by people we have never met. Yes, reading history will make you a better citizen and more appreciative of the law, and of freedom, and of how the economy works or doesn’t work, but it is also an immense pleasure the way art is, or music is, or poetry is. And it’s never stale.
All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes — characters even — caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.
“Look at them,” troll mother said. “Look at my sons! You won’t find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon.” Illustration from Walter Stenström’s The Boy and the Trolls, John Bauer, 1915
My mother used to read to me every night when I was little. We got through most of the major fantasy books of that time. The Narnia books by C.S. Lewis were my favorites and, later, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I started making dolls to fill in the gaps of the dolls I had. Obviously we couldn’t buy centaurs and fauns and elves and fairies, so I made them to play with the normal dolls I had. I must have been about six years old when I started making fantasy dolls. ― Wendy Froud
Somaprabha and a Celestial Nymph Listening to Music Kathasaritsagara Painting, ca 1590
People listening to songs are like people reading novels: for a few minutes, for a few hours, someone else gets to come in and hijack that part of your brain that’s always thinking. A good book or song kidnaps your interior voice and does all the driving. With the artist in charge you’re free for a little while to leave your body and be someone else.
To read fiction means to play a game by which we give sense to the immensity of things that happened, are happening, or will happen in the actual world. By reading narrative, we escape the anxiety that attacks us when we try to say something true about the world. This is the consoling function of narrative —the reason people tell stories, and have told stories from the beginning of time.
A public library is the most democratic thing in the world. What can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants: demagogues can persecute writers and tell them what to write as much as they like, but they cannot vanish what has been written in the past, though they try often enough…People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself.