Why Do We Read?

The missus and I met with two other couples yesterday afternoon for a neighborly chitchat. It didn't take long for the conversation to drift toward end-of-life issues. Not that any of us suspect the end is in sight; it's just that another, older neighbor does feel so, and he seems bent on drawing as many of his neighbors as he can into that obsession.

So with the funerals planned, the kids taken care of, the talk turned to religion. It's the liberal's game when this topic comes up in our neighborhood; we're educated far beyond our capacity to make use of it, and thus we compensate by posturing as wise as Solomon. None of us knows what's on the other side of our seventy or eighty years, but we're sure we're ready for it. And in the course of this conversational drift, we – because we're oh, so wise and liberated in our thinking – we poo-poo various specific scriptural passages and alternately defend these thousands-of-years-old insights into life very nearly to the death.

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And I kept wondering: do we try to live as millennia-old desert dwellers, rolling out parchment hen-tracked with tribal hieroglyphics? Or do we surrender to the vastly different reality of the twenty-first century, perhaps aware of what's been bequeathed to us by these ancient nomads, and nod our heads at the occasional similarities to these old papyri in our modern literature? Or do we read as an alternative to Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory? 

Certainly we need diversion. But if that's all there is to books – Harlequins or noir mysteries, or cowboy dust-ups – why do so many read something we casually call literature? Is literature simply exotic language couched in complex structures and woven about some vague sense of story? Or is there something there beyond the pale? Are we reaching in a secular way for the same sense of order and understanding that the primitives of our past reached for in their way? 

I have my suspicions. But I hate to think literature, books, reading – this is nothing more than fashion.

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