A good friend of mine once asked me why I enjoyed reading so much. “How can you just sit there for hours,” she wanted to know, “doing nothing but staring at a book? I just don’t have the patience for that!” I have to admit that I found her question so odd that I couldn’t think of an answer right away. Especially since I know that my friend really enjoys watching movies, which the last time I checked, also involves sitting still for long periods of time. And while I do enjoy a good movie, if I were given the choice between reading a book or watching a movie or television show, I’ll pick reading every single time.
A movie shows me things, in its own way and in its own good time, and sometimes with jerky camera movements that leave me feeling just a little bit motion sick. A book, on the other hand, tells the story with words, and there are always plenty of details that are left to the reader’s imagination. That means each of us are going to picture the characters, the action, and the setting just a little bit differently, so that reading a story becomes so much more personal that simply watching the action on a screen. And I don’t know about anyone else, but I usually imagine the main character looking at least a little like people I know, and that makes them very real. In a movie, you are stuck with what the actor actually looks like.
Words, if put together skillfully, can convey the subtle nuance, off-beat humor, and shared insights that make reading such a joy. I enjoy the mysteries of Gwendoline Butler, not so much for their plots (which are good), but for her way with words. In her book Cracking Open A Coffin, she describes the main character, John Coffin, sitting at a table listening to his companion’s troubles. His dog, Bob, is underneath the table with his head resting heavily on Coffin’s foot, which is beginning to go numb. She writes: “Coffin looked his sympathy and tried again to shift Bob from his foot. Bob sank deeper down.” Anyone who has experience with a stubborn dog knows exactly how one can “sink deeper down” when it wants to stay put. But that’s not something that could easily be shared on a screen.
When I’m reading a good book, I am truly seeing the world from someone else’s eyes, because everything is told through the narrator’s perspective. I know what the character is thinking, not just saying and doing. I may be a middle-aged, middle class Protestant woman, but after reading Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway, I know what it feels like to be a young, broke,Quaker girl from England who is struggling to start a new life in Ohio in the 1850’s. That’s a gift. And although I don’t read poetry nearly as much as I should, a good poem can pack so much meaning into just a few simple words. My college yearbook used these words from Chidiock Tichborne as a memorial to a student who died during the school year: “My thread is cut, and yet it is not spun. And now I live, and now my life is done.” Exactly.
So yes, I know I spend a good portion of my life with my nose in a book. But there are so many good books out there, and so many authors whose words are just waiting to be read, and so much to experience, enjoy, and learn from them. Personally, I can think of very few better ways to spend my time.