Why Read: Perspective

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

We have discussed reading for pleasure and for education. The third reason to read is for perspective. By this I mean read to understand the state of one’s ideas. Read to adjust the way you look at the world. Read to understand how two people, places, things, or ideas interact.

What is perspective?

Perspective is concerned with three things: (1) your own thoughts; (2) how you view another’s thoughts; (3) how you view the way two or more sets of ideas interact.

At its heart, perspective is how the world appears. Your background, experience, knowledge, and wisdom influence perspective.

How do reading and perspective intersect?

Reading is available as an exercise to gain knowledge, test your perspective, reexamine it for necessary revisions, and deploy a new perspective to solve problems or simply get more enjoyment out of life.

Reading also informs how you view another person’s perspective. Is their perspective based on knowledge or ignorance? Can you help them to improve their perspective or are they reluctant to change?

These are all problems reading can solve.

Change is brought about in people the same way Nature brings about change to the earth’s surface. Sometimes with torrential floods and sometimes with two drops of mist. But, either way, the change begins with a small action, just one rain drop. Books are there to help you in that way. It’s important to remember, though, that change isn’t as important as the process involved in bringing it about. These are all tiny shifts in attitude and behavior that we can make by reading.

All of mankind has some good in them. You can easily lose sight of that in the day to day grind you’re engaged in. Go to work, pay the bills, feed your kids. These are the priorities and when things don’t go our way we tend to look for people to blame or we tend to lose faith in ourselves, maybe even our faith in humanity. To annihilate that good by failing to believe it exists is to refuse to find the time to see that exists. Books can realign us to the good being done across the world, to the good in people’s hearts, and to the steady improvements in the human race. If you’re not being reminded of that at home, find a book to remind you.

I encourage you to recognize connections between events in your life. The more you can either collect or create by imagination the more data you will have to rely on in answering the ultimate questions in life. Reading is a method of collecting data and exercising the imagination. You appreciate your ability to draw the connection, you appreciate the connected things or ideas, you appreciate others that have seen the connection. It’s a simple victory, but these simple victories add up and let us know we’re alive. These things make us more alive.

Our Reading and Writing Serves as an Aid to our Memories

When you pick up a book and start to read, if it’s a good one, you will find yourself engrossed in the story. Finding out what happens next becomes a desire you come one step closer to realizing every time you turn the page. Humans’ interest in stories is natural. It’s universal. We want stories to be told or read to us as soon as we are old enough to understand them and the desire lasts until death. There are few phrases more powerful than, “tell me a story.”

Some stories have been around for thousands, if not millions of years. They have been refined over time and are now written down to make them more accessible, but many of the great stories began with the oral tradition. They were passed around at the campfire. They were told in battle encampments to make sure warriors fought when they were supposed to fight. These stories were told to rulers so that they would understand the power they hold and how to wield it.

Stories are not just for entertainment, they are the very vessels we use to make sure the things we think are important are being passed to the next generation. If we’re not reading, then we’re not going to be in a position to do our part to make sure the stories that need to be told are being told. You can do your part by writing a story worth passing on, but that’s hard to do if you don’t know how your story fits in with those that’ve come before it. But, you can also read good stories and share the best ones with your friends and talk about those stories and host a book club where you encourage more people to read the stories you find in important. In that way, you’re doing something to make sure the ancient messages that should be passed on are being passed on and that the new messages that may need a signal boost are getting that from you.

Our lives unfold as stories. One event happens after another and sometimes we can even recognize a connection between two events. This is a hard thing to do when long expanses of time occur between events, though. If you’ve written something about your experiences you might be better able to draw the connection. This is what novels do for us. They condense the events into a form that we can spend a few hours on. That makes the connections easier to spot. The best novels deal with connections and relations to things we’ve experienced in our own lives. They helps where we have yet to draw that connecting line on our own. Perceiving these connections and trying to understand them is instinctual. We do it without having to think about it. The book just makes it easier to do because we aren’t reliant on our faulty and incomplete memories.

Memories outrank things. Even memories are outranked by rationally assembling those memories into bigger ideas. In that way, sometimes, fiction is more like reality than the shotgun pattern of our memories. Novelists, in particular, fill the gaps with their imagination to create a whole life for us to look at and study in a format we can hold in two-hands. Novels are, in that way, case studies on life. We can see how a character might be changed by some series of events whereas in our own lives the changes are often so gradual we can’t recognize them in ourselves. Proust wrote about this.

But, the other thing we can do is write out our memories in the form of a book so that we can draw the connections between the events of our lives despite our imperfect memories. Do some of that, too, but read how others have collected their memories and combined it with their imagination to pass on a story that will be memorable. Study how authors make the connections they make so you can make the connections with your own memories, about your own life.

Stories Are Preparation for How Our Lives May Unfold

By reading and understanding an author’s plot we make our lives more meaningful. We start to see how the authors’ stories are related to the story of our own lives. With a little effort we might even start to see how the universal stories, the ones that have been alive for years, are still being lived out by us today. Everyone struggles with their place in the world. Everyone struggles to live a life of meaning. These are the same things books struggle with.

Our connections to those around us are emphasized because we recognize their stories must be similar to our own. Our connections to our ancestors are emphasized because we recognize the problems they faced are similar to those we still encounter. Understanding the impressive power of story we learn that we are not alone.

Characters are mirror images of our internal state.

The characters we encounter are reflections of ourselves. They show us what we would look like in the mirror if you stripped away flesh and bone. The characters we encounter are a reflection of our inner mental states.

You truly know so few people in life. We are hesitant to share our honest mental states. We are most hesitant to share these states with people we care about. Reading can fill this gap. From your reading experience you can understand that the characters’ stories are not unlike your own.

Look at reading as a tool to enhance your perspective. Use reading to learn how your mental states look in the mirror. Use reading to understand your personal search for understanding is unique, but not a lonely endeavor.

Never underestimate the power of the mind. Spending some time each day on your mental health is essential. Reading books is a way to do this without asking anything of anyone else and with very little expense.

Others have made the journey before you and lived to tell about it. They are labeled by their pursuits: authors, artists, philosophers, and musicians. Let story help align your perspective toward your pursuit. They have found a creative outlet to express their emotions and anxieties. Our goal is to find the same, but to do that you have to start by looking at yourself in the mirror.

Modern Man Needs Books

We deal with the immense power provided by technology and with our place in a rapidly advancing society. Part of being human today is admitting you are unsure where you belong, who you are, and what you’re expected to do. To engage in the process of coming to terms with these modern realities you must read. Our literature has changed from the epic external battles of Greek myth to the microcosmic study of our own minds and our place in our very small sphere of the world. That’s because we’re now fighting the biggest part of our day to day fight there.

In “How to Read Literature Like a Professor”, Thomas C. Foster explains, “every culture has its own body of myth that can explain things that other disciplines can not. This is some of the most meaningful literature to spend time on.” Much of today’s formal philosophical study is too engaged in semantical games to be the answer. Literature is now the way we learn to deal with our modern predicament. Let’s look at three examples.

Farming and Ranching Were Once the Ways We Exercised Dominion Over Plants and Animals

According to Henry David Thoreau ancient poetry and mythology suggest husbandry (the cultivation of plants and animals) used to be a sacred art. The methodical tilling of ground in preparation for planting combined with the use of animals for just the right purpose were worshiped. They were the object of ceremony and ritual. Husbandry was a way we exercised dominion over plants and animals.

Most of us no longer farm or ranch. Many that still do perform the task as corporations primarily motivated by creating excess to sell for wealth. Without an idea of where we fit in the “food chain” we lose touch with reality. This is a modern predicament. Think about this, though, in the case of a food shortage who do you want in charge of the food supply? Someone who has read “The Grapes of Wrath” or someone who thinks literature is a waste of their time. The human effect of decisions can not be discounted. I personally think it is undervalued today. Too much emphasis is placed on wealth accrual and too little is placed on personal growth and overall health. We need to understand how we fit in before we can understand what we’re doing wrong. Books can help.

Destructive Technology is Our Creation – We Must Read to Manage it Responsibly

Technology is one way we bring our imaginations into the physical world to meet a specific need or desire. We have expansive imaginations and have shown the ability to create what our minds can see. Sometimes, those imaginings are of destructive forces. Nuclear weapons and other “weapons of mass destruction” are more prevalent and feared now than ever.

We need a counterbalance to these forces. We need to spend as much time studying the beauty of our nature as we spend learning how to destroy. I would trust the man with his finger on the nuclear bomb more if he had read “Catch-22.”

Generation Y is now Generation C

Generation Y might be more aptly called Generation C where C stands for “connected” (arguably D would have been just as valid where D stands for “distracted”). We are defined by our connections. What if those connections are severed, though? What if those connections never form the way they should. What if the very nature of our connections leave us feeling more lonely and depressed than before?

The master of loneliness was David Foster Wallace. He captured its essence because he felt truly alone and depressed. Would you be able to connect to a truly lonely and depressed person better if you’ve read “The Pale King?” Would you be in a better position to understand the impact of even a digital connection if you saw it expressed in literature? I think so.

How Does This All Relate to Perspective?

The scientific evolutionary model tells us we are animals. Our minds tell us something different. We perceive ourselves as capable of adaptation, more intelligent, and more artistic than animals. If our perceptions are true we should act like it. We should exercise those skills which make us different. Creative thinking is our evolutionary niche.

Reading leads to understanding which leads to new perspective. New perspective might teach you how to live in a modern world where we no longer struggle to survive, but instead struggle with how to think and feel. New perspective can show you how to deal with powerful technology in a responsible way. New perspective can teach you how to connect in a world filled with constant interaction.

The next time you think to yourself, I am nothing, I have nothing to offer, or I am wasted space, turn to a book. Instead of feeling lost attempt to understand your place in the world. One beautiful and true sentence can bring you back. It can help you to know your place among plants, animals, and neighbors. Never underestimate the fact that you are part of something larger than yourself. And if you ever doubt it, then read until you’ve re-aligned yourself to that idea.

Start defining yourself through your reading experiences. If you do, you might just find a whole new way to live. You might find a whole new outlook on life through your perspective shift.

Photo:  Some rights reserved by Yogendra174.

5 Replies to “Why Read: Perspective”

  1. You mention that Auster noticed coincidence & inconsistency. To me the conincidences represent consistency as in when you start down a path coincidences happen that lead to reinforcement and a sense of interconnectedness that is missing if you are not paying attention.

  2. Auster is a master of making the coincidence apparent to the reader but the characters oblivious to it, at times. He’s fun to read for that reason.

    I like your take on the idea of coincidence, though. If you’re catching the connections you know you’re on the right path? At least you’re alive enough to be paying attention.

  3. I would argue that many times what we regard as coincidence is consequence. Of our own and other people’s actions. For every action, a reaction. Also, on an slightly unrelated tangent, it seems more and more people are unwilling to recognize their hand in their own fates, the consequences of decisions made (or even worse, not made).

  4. I find the discussion on perspective quite interesting. It is an explanation that not many consider when trying to arrive at the meaning in any area. What is the perspective you are using to make a value judgement on any given issue? Perspective can guide or destroy any given situation with either the lack of acknowledgement, or the blind loyalty to something that you have always “heard” is the right thing to do. We think of the Founding Fathers of this country as great men and heroes. England viewed them as traitors and criminals. Where is the truth in the conversation…certainly it must be in the perspective!

    1. The social sciences sometimes refer to this idea as bias, I think.

      When you’re thinking about reading I think the less harsh term, perspective is more appropriate. Every reader brings something to the table when they read. It would be unrealistic to suggest otherwise. So, there’s that perspective that you bring to what you read.

      Then, there’s also the idea that you take something from what you read into the “real world.” Hopefully we can spend some time exploring both ideas in this series of posts. I’d be interested to hear what others have to say.

      Your example about the Founding Fathers is a great one because there are deep feelings on the issue.

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