No matter which book I pick up, or which movie I watch, it appears that I keep finding the same themes. Heroism and honor, right and wrong, humanity and hope, life and love, tragedy and triumph. This is the power of fiction – to create a captivating tale that conveys universal truths and timeless concepts. This is what makes the pen mightier than the sword. The power of words, of ideas, to change the way we think and therefore what we do. Is there any power greater?
The one theme that I keep coming back to though is heroism. What does it mean to be a hero? This question, and the answers I have found both in fiction and history, have informed everything about who I am as a person. Which is probably why historical fiction, particularly the classics, is my favorite genre. Well, one of my favorites. It’s tied with sci-fi for first place. Sci-fi of course is just historical fiction projected onto what we imagine the future will be. Despite how different they may appear superficially, at their core both are the same. A hero and a villain – the dichotomy of good and evil. This is the key ingredient in forming sterling character.
This is what I believe is lacking from most modern books. Why we have a generation (or two or three) that does not know the difference between right and wrong. Most don’t even believe that there is such a thing as moral wrong. Except for thinking that right and wrong still exists. That’s what sensible people call “an argument that commits suicide.” You’re saying that the only wrong is not believing that nothing is ever wrong or immoral? It doesn’t work that way – it can’t work that way. And if we were still reading great literature, books that deal with right and wrong, black and white, good and evil, heroes and villains, then we might still be on track.
Don’t get me wrong, I have seen my generation do tremendous, unbelievable good. It is my firm opinion that we are the generation of empathy. But I also believe that empathy, carried too far, leads to wrong-doing. Do I want us to abandon our empathy? Not on your life. Nor do I want us to remain rigid in the right-versus-wrong standards of yesterday. I do believe that something that was right 50 years ago may now be wrong and vice versa. Good and evil, however, will never change. They stand immutable upon the laws of nature and nature’s God. If we can bring those standards back and couple them with our modern empathy – my god! What incredible good we could do!
A friend recently challenged me to a book reading contest. Or maybe it was my idea – the details are a bit fuzzy. Anyway, he and I tend towards very different kinds of books. My bookshelves are primarily filled with works of fiction – adventure and sci-fi stories mostly, with a slight emphasis on the classics. Cookbooks would be my second-largest category, with a few non-fiction and political books to round things out. His reading history, on the other hand, is full of non-fiction – religious, political, and biographies. Supplemented with a healthy dose of young adult fiction. So we each made a list of 5 books – it wasn’t hard for either of us to think of 5 that the other hadn’t read – and swapped lists. The first one to read all 5 gets a prize from the other (we finally agreed on truffles since we both love chocolate).
So, properly motivated, I tackled his list. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting to like more than maybe one of his books. I mean, if they were worth reading, they would have already been on my never-ending reading list – right? The first two have pleasantly surprised me. I really enjoyed both. Number 3 is a little bit weird; I don’t yet know how I feel about it. Books 4 and 5 look alright – I read a chapter or two of each whenever I get bored with #3.
I have no doubt that I will win our little book reading contest. I am highly competitive and a very fast reader. (I once read an 800-page book in less than 24 hours.) On the other hand, he could surprise me. But that’s not really the point. The point is having fun. And reading good books that neither of us would have picked up on our own. I know I never would have looked twice at any of these books had I come across them at the library or bookstore. And he’s never heard of any of the books I put on his list. And new reading material is never a bad thing.
This is why I typically say “books” when someone asks me what I want for my birthday or Christmas. Sometimes I’ll point them in a particular direction, sometimes I’ll leave it wide open. The latter is riskier because you never know what you’re gonna get, but it’s also way more fun. I can always tell who’s a reader and who isn’t by the book they choose. The non-readers play it safe with a generic uplifting piece like “The Power of Positive Thoughts,” or something like that. They pick something based on its cover. Something easy to read and just as easy to forget. The readers, on the other hand, that’s where things get interesting. Nine times out of 10, the book they choose is one they’ve read and loved themselves. And I love it. It’s so cool to pick up a book that someone you know has selected for you. It’s both a glimpse into who they are and a chance to expand your reading horizons. A double win in my book.