Books, what are they good for?

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Books, what are they good for?

Postby Estraa on Wednesday, 30 December 2009, 3:46 pm

Books are very limited in what they can give to the reader; the experience of meaningful commitment, finding a warm shelter by accident after a stormy travel, hunting for food when you're hungry and the joy and satisfaction of catching your prey and eating it up—all straighforward and practical things are foreign to them, but those are the things that the modern society does not provide its "citizens" with, and so we languish. The world of books is the world of weak substitutes.

I've been thinking about it recently: is there any book that does something more than is merely excellent? I haven't found a Beethoven of books: a writer so brilliant that you can imagine only a few people in history being able to write something as good, and can't imagine yourself writing something as good in a million years, something that goes beyond perfected craft (practice makes perfect), laborously found metaphors (you can find them if you look for them long enough), a surprising and rich plot (anyone with an IQ of 130+, plus patience and time can construct one). As M John Harrison said in an interview, if he can write it, it can't be very difficult.

Perhaps the best books are merely excellent, because of their nature as books, that they are merely books.

Reading is remembering; what you haven't experienced will have to be communicated through pale analogies, but actually you'll never know the thing until you've experienced it (if you ever do). Analogies work much like weak substitutes for memories, which are already weak substitutes for the actual experience.

Books are good as light entertainment, or as a provocation to remember. Are they good for anything else?

To make this sigh in the form of a question mark more related to speculative fiction; speculative fiction tends to be better as light entertainment than other types of fiction. Other types of fiction rely too much on strictly personal experience. Speculative fiction at least tries to transcend its status as a weak substitute for weak substitutes; often succeeds in creating the illusion that the reader has gone beyond mere remembrance, that he imagines new things while reading.

Hundreds of excellent books but not a single truly great one of pure genius. Is it wrong to look for something more than entertainment in books? At least it is an attempt at "sublimation" (more properly "weak substitution").
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Re: Books, what are they good for?

Postby owlcroft on Saturday, 02 January 2010, 10:27 pm

Books are very limited in what they can give to the reader; the experience of meaningful commitment, finding a warm shelter by accident after a stormy travel, hunting for food when you're hungry and the joy and satisfaction of catching your prey and eating it up—all straighforward and practical things are foreign to them, but those are the things that the modern society does not provide its "citizens" with, and so we languish.

One scarcely knows where to begin. Well, let's pick at the loose threads one at a time.

First: There are no citizens of modern society: there are only citizens of particular nations. Some nations provide their citizens with nothing but grief, or even death, while others are very generous, in material things and even in giving human comfort.

Second: While I may be misreading, I see there an implication that "society" ought to be providing things. If that be so, there's a whole separate sociopolitical can of worms that I don't feel like opening, but let's just say that not everyone would agree.

Third, "the joy and satisfaction of catching your prey and eating it up" would not be a joy to me, an ethical vegetarian, and probably not to a lot of human carnivores, either. Hunters are, in my experience, usually weird people.

Fourth, that there are great pleasures that books cannot deliver is not a premise from which one can conclude that books are not good for much. A sewing machine cannot deliver a movie; a bowl of rice cannot play a Beethoven symphony; does that make sewing machines or rice largely useless? Things have purposes, and to judge them by criteria wildly unrelated to their purposes is just flat-out silly. And equally silly is to say that books are "very limited" in what they can give a reader.

Books can--not all do, but they can--provide powerful and important things. They allow vicarious experiences we could never, in a busy lifetime, experience on our own. However trite the analogy, it remains so that every book is a doorway into another world, a world in which the reader becomes someone else, often several someone elses, and they often very "else" from one's own self. I have experienced, very conservatively, ten thousand minds and souls other than my own. Those minds have showed me experiences, places, thoughts I would not else ever have apprehended; those souls have shown me other and perhaps wider ways of meeting life and of seeing significances in it. That is, in some small part, what books are good for: expanding the mind and soul.

As M John Harrison said in an interview, if he can write it, it can't be very difficult.

I believe the vocabulary term we are looking for is "modesty".

If a Beethoven among musical composers is possible, as you apparently concede, then his equivalent in literature is equally possible. Whether this or that writer is or is not he is not a matter for a posting forum; it is, in part, what this whole site is about, and here we deal only with a fairly narrow slice of the literary pie. If, for example, you don't think that Jorge Luis Borges is as eminent and special a creator--his work "something that goes beyond perfected craft"--as Beethoven, or Lewis Carroll one of "only a few people in history being able to write something as good", then I have only pity. You would seem to be the literary equivalent of tone-deaf.
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Re: Books, what are they good for?

Postby Inkdipped on Tuesday, 06 September 2011, 4:05 pm

If, for example, you don't think that Jorge Luis Borges is as eminent and special a creator--his work "something that goes beyond perfected craft"--as Beethoven, or Lewis Carroll one of "only a few people in history being able to write something as good", then I have only pity. You would seem to be the literary equivalent of tone-deaf.


I must add in as much as any book has provided an opportunity to question one's ideals, values, expectations or allowed one to see a sunset in new ways or be stopped by bluebonnets in a valley as recorded by an author's pen or even delighted by a fresh metaphor or a turn of a phrase, much from the fictive world offers opportunities for human enlightenment and advancement. It also can be said that for some (myself excluded) Beethoven is mere entertainment. Opportunities for growth are always relative when it comes to creation, including the grand creation of this earth. I would have to ask the thread's author if he has ever been to a desert? What might parch one might bring excitement and wonder to another.
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Re: Books, what are they good for?

Postby Estraa on Monday, 12 September 2011, 12:01 pm

I have been to a desert, the outskirts of Sahara. I liked it there quite a lot. It reminded me of Dune. And yet I take it as a sign of ignorance to claim that Beethoven and Borges are somehow equivalent. They are not, as can perhaps be gleaned from the eminent 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (the articles on Beethoven and Beethoven's music). I have those articles to back me up when I say there is no equivalency there.

I sometimes make statements lightly, but the one about Beethoven and writers wasn't one of the lightest I have made.

Finally, whether someone appreciates Beethoven or not is beside the point. A tree falls or stands in the forest even if no one is there to see or hear it.
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Re: Books, what are they good for?

Postby charleshudgen on Tuesday, 17 April 2012, 3:17 am

Reading books is a habit that is popularly taken up by more and more people. It benefits our lives by improving our knowledge to a large extent, helping us relax and become more confident in communication.Reading books is considered to be one way of entertaining or relaxing. People can enjoy an interesting book to relieve stress after a working day. It is also convenient for them to read books at home, in their car, on the bus or anywhere they like. A favorite book can aid them to feel comfortable, providing them more energy to continue working or doing other daily activities.



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Re: Books, what are they good for?

Postby maliha on Monday, 30 December 2013, 6:12 am

I agree that Pratchett can be quite funny. Do you have a favorite?

I suppose I could mention Vance, although he is what I would call "too obvious", with a long and endlessly useful article at the main site (although I'm one of those who would put the Cugel books somewhere higher on the list).
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Re: Books, what are they good for?

Postby maliha on Sunday, 05 January 2014, 3:27 pm

Books are very limited in what they can give to the reader; the experience of meaningful commitment, finding a warm shelter by accident after a stormy travel, hunting for food when you're hungry and the joy and satisfaction of catching your prey and eating it up—all straighforward and practical things are foreign to them, but those are the things that the modern society does not provide its "citizens" with, and so we languish. The world of books is the world of weak substitutes.




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Last edited by maliha on Wednesday, 20 August 2014, 8:23 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: Books, what are they good for?

Postby Terry Tornado on Sunday, 05 January 2014, 5:27 pm

This is silly. Basically books provide education and delight. What do expect from a book?
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