What I learnt from books, whether I wanted to or not

Today, as part of my second ‘I am so totally not using social media for a little while now for serious world’ initiative in the past 6 months, I started reading The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin when I woke up this morning as opposed to my usual habit of heading straight to my laptop and checking how many facebook notifications or Tumblr likes/reblogs I had earned with which I could validate my existence. I’m still in denial over the failure of my first facebook hiatus, to the extent that I still don’t have facebook in my shortcuts bar even though I check it like ten times a day. But reading this morning felt right. Starting off the day with the pursuit of something new and unknown rather than the maintenance of something repetitive and basically predicted felt healthy.

It’s been a while since I read straight-up High Fantasy, and it took me back. I simultaneously like and dislike the exploration of social, political and cultural situations that we don’t, and perhaps can’t, encounter in real life – I like it because of the thought-provoking nature of such exercises, and I dislike it because it’s hard to relate to. We have an established system of checks and balances that we’re used to from growing up in X part of the world, though maybe that changes with travel. Seeing something so totally alien to that as a norm is at once fascinating and alienating, and I much prefer familiarity to the sense of an inherent separation from a story.

But despite that conceptual barrier, I found myself reading a part of the story that concerned the issue of dealing with corruption. There are magic-users in this story that gather magic from the souls of people designated by a Goddess – it kills them, basically – and the ideas is kind of like karma from what I gather: sending spirits into the afterlife peacefully, where they romp around in wonderful dream-bliss for all eternity, results in a blissful Goddess, and messing up the ritual and damning a victim to an eternity in nightmares makes for a not-so-blissful Goddess, and because magic is such a prevalent part of this society, the issue of keeping peace is paramount, and results in a zero-tolerance approach to corruption.

This young acolyte person is being tested to become an apprentice magic-user priest dude and reveals that he’s been hiding an ongoing tension with a teacher who kept soliciting him for sexual favours. He is called out by his evaluators for not bringing this corruption to light, as keeping peace means destroying corruption, not merely abating it for a while. They also bring up his background as a servant, basically class-shaming him for the fact that he’s used to covering things up instead of addressing them head-on as a by-product of wanting to avoid open conflict.

I have only read up to halfway through chapter four and by no means want to try and given an opinion on any of this right now; I’ll just say that it is very interesting and I want to know how all of this works out, so I’m definitely glad that I started reading it. But it was that bit about destroying justice rather than keeping things to yourself, the importance of getting things out in the open rather than keeping them covered up, that really got to me. It’s a situation I’ve come across time and time again in my life, as it has to everybody, and my response has been mostly the same as this character’s – to cover it up and ‘tough it out’. At least that’s how it feels; I have a very human (read: selective) memory.

And just reading that line made something click inside me, and I went: ‘Oh, okay, so the answer is to just get it out in the open. Cool. I guess I’ll do thahang on a minute …’

Whenever I read something about ‘what I learnt from [insert story here]’ – generally Harry Potter, as I’m of that generation, but it could also be Disney films or The Lord of the Rings – I sort of roll my eyes because, I mean, they’re books. They’re not primers on how to live your life in the real world, because they’re fiction. They don’t deal with the real world; they deal with metaphors for the real world. Compassion and courage and stuff – yes, we need those things if we want to form a just and moral society, and that’s exactly what we should be doing, but I can’t help but dismiss these proclamations of gratitude to fiction for teaching people important life-lessons, as though life had never given them any other lessons in this sort of thing, reeks of privilege and naivety to me. That may be incredibly ungenerous, not to mention a tad hypocritical – I did grow up on Disney and Harry Potter after all – but it’s my gut reaction to such hyperbolic statements.

And then something like this happens, and I’m like: ‘Is this what they’re talking about?’ I caught myself this time and felt rather embarrassed, though amused as well – it’s something that happens quite a bit, and particularly as an Arts graduate where my degree is basically in critical thinking it feels mortifying that I’d so readily take on a statement like this as valid just because it confirmed something I wanted validation for.

I want to believe that honesty is always the best policy, that ratting out corruption and abuse is always healthier than keeping it secret in the long-run, and I want to act that way as well. But that’s so simple. It’s so black-and-white, and it doesn’t consider the consequences that are less healthy, less humane, that can come about as a result – nor the issue of how corruption is identified and by whom. And again, this is fiction, and speculative fiction at that. It makes me think of how long I’ve been reading books this way – and how much more I might have enjoyed some of them if I hadn’t been so quick to internalise these tidbits of seeming validation for issues I’ve been uncertain about.

Because this is a story, and I’m three-and-a-half chapters in. It hasn’t come to its conclusion yet; it hasn’t made its full argument. It’s giving me an introduction, and I need more information before I come to a conclusion. And even then, that conclusion should probably be about the story, not whether I want to go around exposing every dirty secret I’ve ever kept just because ‘honesty is the best policy’. Blanket statements are undisguised ideology, and at least that’s easy to deal with because you can see it. It would be most unseemly if I didn’t act like I did see it.

And also unhealthy, and that’s the main thing. I’ve never really thought about healthy reading habits, not explicitly, but at the same time I’ve been concerned with it for a very long time – it’s why I think books like Twilight and The Banned and the Banished should be burned, if I wasn’t against book-burning on principle, and why, much as I’ve come to adore Wonder Woman, I think we need fewer depictions of women in skimpy clothing in our widely-circulated media for general audiences. I care about the gullibility and lack of critical engagement of The Masses, but until this morning that never came with a personal experience to inform that concern. Well, I’ve had it now.

Actually, if I’m being honest, it’s part of the reason why I went off High Fantasy to begin with. It’s sometimes so abstract that anything resembling what I consider normal I’ll reach out and snatch in before it flutters away on the breeze, and I end up not really thinking about what it is that I’ve snatched and begun to internalise. I wonder how much, if any of it, has stuck without my noticing.

So basically, I know now what it is to say that I learnt something from a book – and that I will probably learn something more useful if I actually think about it first.

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One thought on “What I learnt from books, whether I wanted to or not

  1. Pingback: The Killing Moon | Vevacha

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