What’s the point of reading? Is there one? Is it the same for everyone? What follows below is my answer to the first question but, to tone down the suspense, my answers to numbers two and three are simply “yes” and “no”, respectively.
To me the most important thing I get from reading is a gradually better understanding of both individual and collective human nature. I get this from reading novels. A good novelist has, above all, a finely tuned sense of what makes the world go round, and what makes the world go round are people in all their individual and affiliated roles. After that what distinguishes a novelist are matters of technique, style and voice.
A good novelist, in my opinion, begins by drawing the reader into a dream of the author’s creation. Once in that dream, the reader should never be shaken into wakefulness by the author’s own affectations or clumsy writing. The writing must never get in the way of the story. A great novelist does all this and adds to it relevant, intense phrases and observations that call the reader to a newer and clearer understanding of something, usually causing him or her to think: Why couldn’t I have said that?
As an example, I offer a small and powerful quote from Don Delillo’s novel Running Dog, which I finished last week. It is one of his lesser known and studied stories, which, to me, makes this find even more pleasurable.
All conspiracies begin with individual self-repression.
Why couldn’t I have said that?
The more I think about it the more I find it to be true. When you decide to conspire with anyone for any reason, you are forced to repress (give up, at least temporarily) a part of yourself. The conspiracy has to be nurtured and eventually become bigger than all the conspirators put together or they would eventually find it tedious.The original cause(s) may be noble, but the conspiracy de-nobilizes the conspirators. It brings me to a question I haven’t yet found the answer to: Can we ever give up a part of ourselves and still be true to anything?
I have the sense that Delillo’s quote could be rephrased to include conspiracy theorists as well as conspiracies themselves. Running Dog was first printed in 1978, well before the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and then 9/11 itself. Conspiracy theories have been raised concerning all three of these events and seem to have grown in number as time passed from one to the next. No doubt the proliferation of Web connections has made it much easier to embellish and foment these theories and the stories behind them; and, let’s not kid ourselves, some relatively small number of them may be true at their core.
So what does a person have to repress in order to promulgate a conspiracy theory? It may be different when different kinds conspiracies are suggested, but in general I would say integrity and a sense of justice are high on the list. We find it easier to blame “outsiders” for just about anything. Just look at all the attempts to connect some level of “foreign power” to the Oklahoma City bombing. Then we had the misguided “Stranger Danger” campaign that effectively took the spotlight of the likely offenders (relatives, neighbors and friends) and turned it full force on “outsiders”. Subscribing to unfounded theories can also be an outlet for hatred, prejudice, and fear, mostly of things and people unknown. Whatever value some few of these theories may have, their total can poison a culture, dividing compatriots into factions, and in essence doing the work of an enemy, real or imagined, against ourselves.
“All conspiracies begin with individual self-repression.”
As for reading as pleasure, I’m honored to say that Margaret Atwood has spoken equally for me in her quote found just above the Title. When the reading is pleasurable we learn the most. Strangely enough this quote can be applied across a wide array of readers and readings. I am fully in sync with what Ms. Atwood said, but I can all but guarantee our reading lists are vastly different.