Books Matter. Here’s Why.

Blog, On Writing, What I'm Thinking

Stories have always been at the center of my world. As a little boy, they were the stories read to me as I curled up on a warm lap. For most of my life, I’ve depended upon the insight of characters in books to teach me about the world and to give me a wider perspective than I could possibly have learned on my own. Novels have taught me about kindness and forgiveness, about the dangers of anger, and the consequences of holding on to grudges. They’ve shown me wisdom, and that even the wisest among us are faced with situations beyond our ability to judge or resolve. I’ve seen what happens to characters who can’t find it in themselves to forgive their own faults and shortcomings.

I was slow to learn my letters—in fact, I hated reading until I discovered one day that all those squiggles actually combined to make words and that the words could be arranged to paint pictures in my head. It was an event that catapulted me into a new, magical, brightly lit world. In fact, I read when I was supposed to be asleep, taking the lampshade off my bedside light so that it would take up less room under the sheets. Not a good idea. I soon learned that a sheet in contact with a naked light bulb would soon begin to blacken and smoke.

I first realized that my worldview was expanding when I received a set of books called The Golden Treasury. It contained the most incredible stories from mythology and folklore, with illustrations to match. The first page contained an epigram that has stayed with me for 60 years:

The world is so full of a number of things
I’m sure we should all be as happy as  kings.

It sounds dated and nowhere as magical as it once seemed to me, or as rich as I still like to imagine it. But at the time I remember thinking it was brilliant. Remember, this was only a decade after the end of WWII, and the euphoria of the powers of good having vanquished evil was still in the air. The radio was still a source of wonder, replete with fifteen-minute dramas that I would listen to in the dark, my ear in contact with the radio speaker. The first transistor radio had yet to be in production, so we were tied to the electrical cord. We had not yet been exposed to TV. Saturday matinee movies were still the high point of the week, complete with a newsreel that gave us international news on the big screen. I was sure that books were indeed going to make me as happy as a king. Why, they already had.

That world is long gone, but stories are still the center of my world, those I read, and those I write. I’ve watched myself, in the last few weeks, taking solace from the stresses of political unrest and concern about the country’s future. Where did I go to find respite from the unceasing discussion about divisions in the country and the vitriol of the campaign?  I went, as always, to stories. Tales that feed the soul. About other people and other times. And that reminded me how important books are. Important because they lift us out of ourselves, remind us of what’s really essential, show us other ways of being and behaving.

Stories about heroes and heroines matter. Books about the courage and determination of the characters we read about inspire us to do more and better. History matters, and reading about it—as history or as fiction—matters, because it gives us the chance to learn about the past and shape the future.

To those of you who responded with such enthusiasm to news of the January 2017 release of my novel On the Sickle’s Edge, many thanks. It is available for preorder here, and for early delivery if you’re interested in ordering it for Christmas or Hanukkah gifts, or for holiday reading.

You might also be interested in two engrossing novels I’ve just completed reading, both of them high on my recommendation list:

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. It’s a beautifully written story, and a gracious mirror image of the grimy Moscow in my novel. The adventures of a  charming member of the Russian aristocracy, under house arrest for life in the upscale Hotel Metropol.

The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks, a novel about the complex personality of biblical King David, told through the eyes and in the voice of his prophet, Nathan.

My best wishes for a happy and healthy holiday season.

Photo: amanda tipton/Flickr CC 2.0