I love reading.
At least, I think I do. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether I like doing a thing or if I just enjoy the process of doing a thing. At the very least, I can say that I do love books very much. Ever since I was young, I can remember the feeling of potential that a new book would give me. The potential for knowledge that I could possess or stories to experience.
Since growing older, I have a bit more money to spend on books. However, I also find myself with less time to read said books, thus negating a lot of the point of having a library. Every time I go to the bookstore with my wife, I see in folly in purchasing more books only to have them unread on my shelf. So recently, I decided to do something to fix this.
More specifically, I decided to read one book per week for the rest of the year, thus finishing 6 entire books in the span of the next month and a half. It’s honestly been going pretty well. I finished reading Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and am currently quickly working my way through Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. However, recently something came to my attention that has made me wonder if I often miss the forest for the trees when it comes to reading.
Don’t get me wrong; I thoroughly enjoyed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The writing style of Douglas Adams reminds me a lot of Don Quixote, which is one of my favorite classical works of fiction. However, while listening to a recent episode of the podcast Opening Arguments, I was shocked to realize how much of the genius in the book went completely over my head while reading it.
Consider the following passage from the opening of the book:
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
Already we can see the writing style of Douglas Adams at work establishing the nature of the book. It begins by describing not the earth or even the solar system but instead the “unfashionable end” of the galaxy itself. Right away, with artistic prose, it establishes just how important our world is in this universe to the point where even something as minuscule as still having digital watches is a reason to mock us.
Throughout the book, the narrative will continue this trend with an almost absurdist sense of humor of showing the utter insignificance of the blue-green planet we call earth, but this opening itself establishes this prospect amazingly well. Every time something starts to appear important, it is immediately knocked down with an absurd event, like an entire fleet getting swallowed suddenly by a small dog.
Very few books I’ve read have had an opening this exceptional. Through a few short paragraphs, it’s immediately apparent what kind of adventure you’re about to embark on and the kind of dry humor you should expect. Douglas Adams was a one-of-a-kind author and someone whose works I wish I’d picked up a long time ago.
Still, I can’t help but wonder how did I miss this paragraph when I first picked up the book several months ago? I read the entire first three chapters before somehow losing interest and moving on. Even when I finished it recently, while there were multiple passages that I found moving or hilarious, I never noticed the deeper narrative going on. The criticisms of religion or meta philosophy went over my head as if I was struggling too much to understand the story itself to grasp anything else.
Not long ago, I dismissed any attempt at reading fiction as a waste of time. After all, I have a whole shelf full of science books I need to read. However, I now am starting to think there’s a unique skill to parsing the point out of a narrative rather than having it spoonfed to you. Stories can connect with us in deeper ways, but if the part of our brain that actively analyzes what we’re reading is out of practice, we can miss out on much of what an author is trying to say.
Anyhoo, long story short, I’m going to be reading a lot more fiction this coming year! I’ll still keep buying a reading science and philosophy books, but I’m starting to think that there’s another part of my brain that needs a bit of a workout…