It is funny to think of some of the unlikely things that civilization relies on, and could not be civilization without…
Pollinating honey bees.
…How about this one? Literary fiction.
Not books in general, though non-fiction books have obvious importance. Literary fiction stands as the ultimate way for human beings to study their nature, and know themselves.
The book is better than all kinds of things we spend time and money on. Imagine a virtual reality home entertainment system that can place you inside the experience of a person climbing a frozen mountain peak—not just in the visual and auditory stimulus, but in the emotions of that climber, the memories of that climber, the irritating piece of apple peel stuck between the teeth of that climber. Maybe it’s not a climber, maybe it’s a person lying in a dirty bed in a hovel in a mining town of the eighteenth century, and that person is dealing with the knowledge of what lies ahead with the sunrise, the strategies available, and the feelings that will accompany each course of action. Instead of an inspiring but downtrodden person, say it is someone with a life of impossible glamour and grandeur. Or say it is someone with your life, precisely, down to a tee. How much money would you expect to fork over at Best Buy for a virtual reality home entertainment system like that?
Limitations Only of the Mind Itself
Literary fiction can be anything, including unreal worlds of fantasy. But included among the anything is the profound. That is, the substantive, resonant thoughts and feelings that reach the centermost part of you. This is something that will vary between individuals, but what we all have in common is the fact that we are not machines and we are alive. We are living and dynamic. There is a trajectory to our existence, and the characters and scenarios of literary fiction have the potential to be right there with us, or even just ahead. (Understand, a lot depends on whether the writer is worth a damn.)
Some believe that the language center of the brain is what most separates humans from other life forms, that language was crucial to the higher evolution of humans. The linguistic center of the brain is massive. The other advanced animals can feel emotions and even make rudimentary plans. But they can’t record anything. They can’t communicate specifics. Great writing, at its best, has a humanizing effect. It has a civilizing effect. It can elevate your mind, and change you for the better. The key is to find the right books, and then concentrate on your reading. Set aside the time to focus on the book. The writer poured his life into it.
Socially and Personally Empowering
Time spent reading does not separate you from other people, it makes you better company for them. In a literary society, great fiction is a social event. You read, and you recommend reading to others. They read it and you have a subject for conversations like no other. Literature can breathe life into love affairs, too. It can awaken the feelings essential to a healthy relationship. In skillful or poetic use of language an author can have people experiencing the complexity of sexual psychology in a way nothing else can equal. No music, no graphic art, no non-fiction treatise can equal the depth of complexity revealed by a well-crafted character in a great work of literary fiction. How much of your time is it worth to have that experience, and have the memory of it to carry throughout your life?
The mental journeys of literature are superior in every way to drug trips. Literary voyages are customized by your own imagination, strengthening that creative imagination as you go. This is true mind expansion. It has to be experienced, and often. There is no describing it. We know what risks and expense people undertake in order to do dope. How much would you be willing to risk to experience the mind of a literary giant, a timeless author whose descriptions and creations will stand as long as people think and feel? And without getting strung-out or hung-over?
A sane society is a literary society. We will recover ours one reader at a time. It doesn’t always have to be with the giants, either. My next blog post will introduce you to my own modest contribution to the literary arts, a novel called Painter of the Heavens.