I was talking to Steve at work the other day and he mentioned a comedian who was waxing indignant about people who "brag" about reading. This comedian gets offended when people say "The book was better than the movie," for instance. How can words on the page be better than the action played out on the big screen with Dolby stereo, he asks. Poor Steve, he had no idea what kind of soapbox topic he'd stumbled over. Fifteen minutes later, I finally wound down and Steve, wearing a perplexed expression, said, "But he's just a comedian!" I know he's right, the guy was just trying to be funny, and Steve thought I'd laugh it off. Maybe I should, but then again, maybe I identify so strongly as a reader that I don't have as much of a sense of humor as I should have about this topic.
Funny, but after this conversation I've run into multiple articles extolling the intellectual, psychological, and social benefits of reading fiction. Research is telling us that reading fiction makes our brains light up in unique ways. Nonfiction only lights up the language part of our brain, but fiction puts on a veritable fireworks show - sending tendrils of light throughout our brain. It seems that reading a story affects our brain in the same way as actually doing the actions in the story. Read about someone skydiving, and our imaginations light up the "skydiving" part of the brain. In addition, reading well-written fiction with complex, ambiguous characters causes the reader to develop more empathy. In the articles about this topic, they claim this can only be gained through reading literary fiction, since popular fiction lacks the complexity required for the effect to occur. I disagree. Sure, lots of popular and genre fiction have stock characters who behave in scripted ways, but there is plenty of genre fiction that has characters as complex as anything written by F. Scott Fitzgerald or (insert dead white man's name here).
As for the claim that the book can't be better than the movie... it's just laughable. A book has an unlimited budget for casting and special effects. Want a city in the clouds with telepathic dragons and people with faces so beautiful that they cause ordinary people to weep? All it takes is words on the page and your reader fills in the blanks. You can write the most incredible action scenes in just a few pages that would cost millions of dollars and days of shooting followed by months of computer time to achieve. There is no special effects budget in a book, your only limitation is your imagination and your readers patience. Of course the book is better. Not only do you have an unlimited budget, you have practically unlimited space. How many pages does the longest film script contain? I'm not sure, but I know it's a fraction of the word count of even an average novel. If you're Brandon Sanderson, the film script would barely cover the first and second prologue!
I love film, don't get me wrong. I like seeing a favorite book on the screen when it's done well. But, even the best film adaptation has to cut beloved scenes, thousands of lines of dialogue and, of course, most of the internal life of the characters. When you read a good book, you inhabit someone else's life for a while. You get to be a wizard, a thief, or a soldier. Not only do you get to be that other person, you get to see the world through there eyes. Quite literally, you get to see things from their point of view. It's impossible to read a lot of books without learning that their is never just one way to look at a situation.
When I was in grade school, the teacher did a lesson on point of view. He had us read a story about a deer running for its life from a hunting wolf. The story made you feel the desperation of the terrified deer, plunging through the underbrush, panting for breath, head flung back as it ran for its life. Then he had us read the same scene from the point of view of the wolf and we learned that the wolf was starving and had a mate and cubs starving back in the den. The wolf had been hunting without success for days and wouldn't have enough energy for another attempt if he failed to bring down this lone deer. If he failed to catch this deer, he and his family would die. Suddenly, you couldn't know who to root for. It was a revelation to me, not just for fiction but for life. In this simple English module on POV, I learned a much larger lesson in life. I learned that it's impossible to see just one side of every story. That you have to consider, not just your needs and wishes, but those of the people on the other side of every argument. Sure, I might think that I deserve the larger piece of pie or the bigger bedroom, but I can make just as valid an argument for my sibling. I might want a raise and an extra day off, but I can see why my boss might not think I deserve it, and so on. Once I became aware of point of view bias, I became a much more deliberate reader and thinker.
Reading is becoming less and less popular. People play video games, watch TV, and participate in other activities more and more often. Even grandmas are finding their time lost to hours of mobile, casual games. There is a real concern that reading is losing ground as a leisure activity, and for the first time in generations, I think it's valid. I'm not talking about literacy, although that's a problem, but the drop in recreational reading. Fiction tells us who we were, who we are, and who we can be. It lets us think about how other people see the world. It allows us to step outside of our own experience and history and explore lives in other continents, times, and socio-economic circumstances. Movies keep us at a distance, books draw us in and make us a part of those worlds in a way that pictures and sound can't quite achieve.
I don't brag about reading, I enjoy it. I don't read to make other people think better of me. I read so I can think better of them. I read to pass the time, fill the quiet hours, and get through the tough times. I read because I can't help myself. I could no more stop reading than I could stop breathing. If I tell you the book is better than the movie, trust me. It is.