From a comment on an excerpt from Alan Jacobs’ excellent The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction over at The Chronicle of Higher Education. (I suggest you pick up Jacobs’ book, if only to read his thoughts on what it means to read for Whim.)
I think one of the most sad things is to not realize is that writing can achieve the same level of bad-assery as any television show, video game, or movie. My favorite example has to be the first paragraph of Moby Dick. It gets better after “Call me Ishmael.” Way better. Check out this insanity:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
Or how about this beautiful little bit from Lonesome Dove, a hearty text I reconsidered thanks to the exaltation of Austin Kleon:
The eastern sky was red as coals in a forge, lighting up the flats along the river. Dew had wet the million needles of the chaparral, and when the rim of the sun edged over the horizon the chaparral seemed to be spotted with diamonds. A bush in the backyard was filled with little rainbows as the sun touched the dew.
It was tribute enough to sunup that it could make even chaparral bushes look beautiful, Augustus thought, and he watched the process happily, knowing it would only last a few minutes. The sun spread reddish-gold light through the shining bushes, among which a few goats wandered, bleating. Even when the sun rose above the low bluffs to the south, a layer of light lingered for a bit at the level of the chaparral, as if independent of its source. Then the sun lifted clear, like an immense coin. The dew quickly died, and the light that filled the bushes like red dirt dispersed, leaving clear, slightly bluish air.
It was good reading light by then, so Augustus applied himself for a few minutes to the Prophets. He was not overly religious, but he did consider himself a fair prophet and liked to study the styles of his predecessors. They were mostly too long-winded, in his view, and he made no effort to read them verse for verse—he just had a look here and there, while the biscuits were browning.
I suppose what I’m saying is that the best art we make acts as a lens through which we see the world. It helps us make sense of things, feel empathized with. Reading, specifically, gives us words to describe the things we feel through the more able minds and hands of those that we read. We use art to understand things, and as a shorthand for experience, to create a space, describe it’s edges, and give it a face. Experiencing art is how we comprehend things and make ourselves aware to what was before only small and invisible. I suppose not reading is a bit like cutting off your thumbs: you’ll never be able to grasp anything.