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Beyond exploding heads, reading means life or death

In a culture that increasingly pursues pleasure for pleasure’s sake, I find myself in a difficult position when faced with the question, “Why do you read?”

This is because my answer–to be entertained–usually flies in the face of several underlying assumptions.

First, there is the assumption that reading is a fundamentally boring pastime, and second, there is the assumption that other media–especially movies–are fundamentally more entertaining ways of receiving the same stories.

The problem with these assumptions is that entertainment does not simply constitute the passive reception of pleasure by an audience.

Rather, the relationship is reciprocal in the same way that the relationship between host and guest, in which the word entertainment has its original definition, is reciprocal.

In the case of a book, its text, its author and its characters all take the role of host, inviting the reader into their home. In the case of a really good book, the text, author and characters receive a reciprocal invitation from the reader and become a part of her life.

I have heard it said that a classic is a house that you still live in; I maintain that a classic is a family you still live with.

For Flannery O’Connor, this engagement with the text takes on a deeper burden. As she wrote in response to critics of her humorous treatment of a life and death matter in Wise Blood, all comedy is a matter of “life and death” because we could not laugh if anything less were at stake.

If we boil our definition of reciprocal engagement down to “wanting to know what happens next,” O’Connor’s understanding is only natural. We want to know what happens next because, in some sense, our life depends on it.

That is, we care about the characters and what happens to them. We want to see how the conflict is resolved, and perhaps, most of all, we feel that in discovering these things we will discover some truth about ourselves, the universe and God. Looking away from that truth would cost our souls dearly.

In this respect, entertainment is markedly different from titillation. If we are only “engaging” in a book or movie because we want to see the next sex scene or exploding head, then we have ceased to engage at all. We only care about the characters or the conflict insofar as they are means to more titillation. We would do just as well going online and watching pornography or video clips of last year’s string of terrorist beheadings.

But the question is still unanswered: why read? Ultimately, I think it’s because, as entertaining as a good story can be, a good story is not all there is.

Just as we watch good films at the level of individual scenes and camera angles, the life and death struggle in a good book permeates every sentence and every word, even as every sentence and word works together to build something even greater than the sum of its parts.

This is why my list of good books has a corresponding list of good quotations. This is also why I think every good book can be read as if it were the Bible, with the expectation that each word is a matter of life and death and the desire that it be so.

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