When people tell me they “just read” motivational books, I cringe. If somebody is telling you the Seven Steps to Success, surely these steps can only work in a flexible brain?
Although many literary forms have declined in consumption around the world, the novel remains supreme. More novels are published every year. In some countries, the short story is a growing form. Fiction is as much a part of human intelligence as learning to walk. Stories have been told since before mathematics, and biology. They are not just “fun” – they are the gymnastics for the brain – they allow us to put ourselves in scenarios and places not often possible in our own lives; they are case studies fro growing wise. For the world is disordered, and live sprawls with no beginning or end to things – our minds need to arrange things in a narrative. Nations need to sell a story.
In fact, one popular motivational book – talks about how couples who can tell a good story about how they met and fell in love tend to have stronger marriages – the durability of their founding myths sustains them through hard times.
It is stories that feed and grow and discipline the wildest parts of our minds – the more intelligent the story, the better the imagination is fired. If we ask – why do we produce so few patents – the answer may be that we do not read much fiction – for every scientific breakthrough needs a mature imagination that can leap over precedent – and arrive at several viable hypothesis. Every nation that has experienced a boom in industrial production – The United Kingdom registered more patents from 1880 – 1910, than any time before this, and any time since. In this same period, the novel was booming – read in serials in magazines by millions of ordinary people.
We organize life, and motivation, and business decisions by attempting to make coherent narratives about these. We use our imaginations to project to a future story, where we are producing goods, and selling them. By the time the entrepreneur is developing a products, he has not yet done, a “market survey” – for how can a market survey be done for something people have never thought to need? It is the sparks of her imagination – her ability to see characters in situations with her product, that begins the process of developing it – the exact skills needed by a novelist; and skills that grow from the process of being a regular reader.
A film does the job for your mind – your mind chews curd – a film happens upon you – you hear and see, are amused charmed and entertained. A novel involves your intelligence – you decide what is going on. The author presents scenarios, in action – and you read character and theme and purpose. The film cannot share in the thoughts of characters – the single most successful form that can do this is the novel, and the short story. Here, you can do, what no human can do; and you can grow in your brain the skill to imagine the thoughts of others…here, the reader meets the character’s innermost thoughts, and can place them against words and possibilities – for the reader new to this form, it is like unlocking the key to a labyrinth of treasures, unavailable anywhere else.
To become a country that innovates and creates, rather than one that simply received, it is necessary for us to feed the part of the brain where only possible scenarios can be thought about and developed. The history of everywhere else that works has shown us that reading good novels, and reading them regularly; reading good stories and reading them regularly, is a good start.
“Our minds thus grow in spots; and like grease spots, the spots spread. But we let them spread as little as possible; we keep unaltered as much of our old knowledge, as many of our old prejudices and beliefs as we can.”
Such is the sad state of affairs that we find ourselves in, in our own little African paradox. It is a paradox because while in Africa and specifically Kenya there is concern about the culture of reading that Kenyans maintain – or lack thereof, Kenya also boasts of having the highest concentration of an educated black force in the west. Certainly where Africa is concerned, our ability to be anglophone is a subject of envy, pity and even admiration in the minds of other Africans.
The words quoted at the beginning of this thought were not by me, but by James Truslow Adams, who coined the commonly used, widely recognised phrase “American Dream” in his 1931 book, The Epic of America. Of course, his meaning of the phrase was rather different and far broader in its scope.
To Adams , the Amertican dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
How do I know this? Because I read it. No, I am not a historian nor am I a scholar worth anything.
It is just that I understand that if I read I shall pick up some information that may be completely useless at the time that I encounter it, but then proves invaluable when it is needed. It comes in handy for example when I meet my lawyer and brief them in the clearest terms what sort of structure I want my business or affairs to take or my doctor when I put him to pains to explain in simple lanuage what the whatever-isis is.
At the very least, reading enables me to put together in flawless english, my thoughts – whether they are collated or not to a piece of paper or a computer screen so that someone may enjoy reading a simply crafted word-sculpture and perhaps – in the case that the thoughts are not thought out, that someone may make some sense of my nonesense.
It is a tragedy that the educated are not usually the well read. They simply took more examinations. This is why you will as an employer sit across the table from a man or woman who professes to be learned and then discover that you, a well read, little examined individual, know considerably more than they do about the business they claim to have studied.
I think that the ultimate purpose of fostering a reading culture at the end of the day, however, is twofold: first to enjoy the craftmanship of wordsmiths, and second, to hope to make some sense out of the nonesense that we live through everyday. Of course if this happened to feed a writer somewhere one cannot object.
Margaret Fuller was one of the leaders of the transcedentalist movement of the 17th Century and she used to have a quip that will terrify any Gikuyu individual having to say this quote in public: “today a reader, tomorrow a leader.”
Of course, if you don’t know what in the world the trancedentalist movement or trancedentalism is, you have an opportunity to read about it, then perplex an audience.