Monday, December 13, 2010

"[Learning to read] is the most important thing that has ever happened to me."

A few days ago, Mario Vargas Llosa received the Nobel Prize for Literature. This post's title is from his beautiful Nobel Lecture called "In Praise of Reading and Fiction," which you can read in its entirety here. Or you can just read this article for a summary and some soundbites, including one of my favorite parts:

"We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute – the foundation of the human condition – and should be better. We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal."

Really, I'd like to post the whole thing. He says so much about not just the importance, but the necessity and power of literature, its ability to mobilize, inspire, and change readers. And what's significant, I think, is that he's writing about fiction. I know a few people who believe that reading fiction is a fluffy, escapist waste of time. And it certainly can be- not all fiction is created equal. But when the distinction "reading for information" is applied solely to nonfiction, my blood boils. The information I've learned from fiction is personalized, applicable, and memorable to me. Some nonfiction achieves that, but not all.

I'm not a good debater. I'm too emotional, and my end argument will always be something like "Fiction is important because I LOVE IT SO MUCH" which, of course, makes no sense. So maybe I need to keep a pocket notebook of quotes from Vargas Llosa's speech and let him do the talking. Here's one more, which sums up my thoughts:

"Without fictions we would be less aware of the importance of freedom for life to be livable, the hell it turns into when it is trampled underfoot by a tyrant, an ideology, or a religion. Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers."