A few years ago, a friend of mine who toils amid the crumbling machinery of our nation’s educational system asked me to contribute to a project she was doing on the subject of books. I don’t remember exactly what was the purpose, but the general context was something along the lines of “why books matter.”
Which made me have to think about why books matter.
I mean, I knew why books matter to me. They matter to me for the same reasons, I suspect, they matter to a lot of people. They entertain me. They educate me. Nonfiction books tell me things about the world I live in, while — to butcher a quote by whomever, I can’t remember — fiction books show me true things about the world by telling me lies about worlds that never existed.
So, sure. Yeah. Of course.
But why do books Capital-M Matter?
In my opinion, it’s because every book is like a different piece of equipment in a gym for the imagination. Or, no, that’s not quite right. It’s more like every book is a different climby-thingy on a playground for the imagination. Because if your imagination is in shape, reading is never really all that taxing; you get the workout without knowing it, in the middle of having fun, the way our batshit crazy rescue dog Bentley gets his Prozac because we hide it in the middle of delicious, delicious peanut butter.
And we’re kind of used to applying youthful connotations to the word “imagination” in any case, aren’t we? We think of imagination as childish.
And that’s ridiculous. Because imagination is everything. It’s responsible for all that makes us human. All that makes us believe in our best qualities enough to strive for them, and all that makes us indulge our most selfish, destructive delusions.
That doesn’t sound childish to me. It sounds awesome and terrible and fucking powerful to me.
Businessmen and marketers prefer the word “vision” to imagination precisely because of those childish evocations. To our trained ears, “vision” sounds more mature, more active, more direct than imagination. But we’re all really talking about ideas. You can have the idea; you can envision it; you can imagine it. There’s really no difference. Ideas — or, if you’ve gotta be a bit markety about it, “the origins of vision” — begin with being able to conceive of something that doesn’t yet exist, or at least doesn’t yet exist in the manner you’re thinking. Down there at the genesis level, it doesn’t really matter if you’re talking about a near-future world in which teenagers hunt each other in order to win food, or a computer with a touchscreen, or a rotating electric tie rack.
If the muscles of your imagination aren’t in shape when you look at that regular old non-electric tie rack that you gotta spin with your hand, then we end up with no innovation, no advancement, no behavioral evolution … no vision.
All of it, everything, comes from imagination.
And that’s why books matter.
Because we can’t have a future we don’t know how to dream.
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