I love to read, and not merely as a means of procrastination from the other things that need sometimes to get done. And neither part of this, I know, is unique to me. But I’ve never ever explored the question, why do I love to read? I grew up in a house with lots of books and some of the earliest things I did when I had money in my pocket, burning a hole to escape, was to prowl through the shelves of used book stores, looking for yet more new worlds to explore. Beyond just the love of reading, I sometimes find myself speculating on the extent to which my reading is sufficient to balance my tendency towards tsundoku, but that’s a question to explore another day.
In a world where we are taught to read from an early age and where literacy is almost taken for granted, it’s a strange question to ask, why do I love to read? But if we remember that reading is a recent innovation of humankind, going back just a few thousand years, then we can shift the question to, why do I love stories and more widely, why do I love fiction? I’ll admit that this is an equally strange question, but it is one that we all will have encountered at some point. One can, with some work, almost imagine a world in which there was no fiction, though such a world is not one that I can see humans inhabiting, at least not happily.
For me, this question hit me between the eyes, going from one that had stalked me from just beyond the edges of the campfire to one that I couldn’t ignore, when I read the cover article from the 7 November issue of the New Scientist, How the Strangeness of our Dream Reveals their True Purpose by Dr Erik Hoel. Dr Hoel is a neuroscientist (and novelist) who describes a theory he’s working on as part of his research. I won’t try to provide the details here, beyond noting that his focus is primarily on understanding why we dream, but part of the idea is that perhaps, just perhaps, the stories we tell each other in our waking lives, whether face to face or through the books we write and read, have a similar function for the maintenance of the human brain as dreams perform in our sleeping lives, namely that they help the brain from becoming too set in its ways of processing the world. What is clear is that we don’t have a sharp understanding of how our brains work, though our understanding is getting better over time, but the core of this idea, that the stories we tell each other are a critical part of being human, in a physical way as well a a cultural way, is a captivating idea.
What I do know, as speculative as this idea is, is that this idea has spent the past month bouncing off other ideas that I’ve written down in the FILE OF MANY IDEAS and these collisions are starting to generate a bit of light and heat, much to the dismay of the other projects that have been (less and less) patiently waiting their turn. But who knows, maybe a fire will catch and sometime will find its way to a future Milford.
Jim Anderson is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Southampton, and is also the Associate Dean (Education and Student Experience) for the Faculty of Social, Human and Mathematical Sciences. Beyond mathematics, he practices the traditional Japanese martial art of aikido and writes science fiction and fantasy.
Jim is on-line at http://www.multijimbo.com