On Art and Pleasure Reading

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For a while now, I’ve been… interested in the term “pleasure reading” and its place in modern American society. Think of when you hear the term:

“Oh, it’s nothing important, it’s just pleasure reading.”

“I just took time off for some pleasure reading.”

“Pleasure reading gives me a break from real reading.”

You know what I mean, right?

And, whether we’d consciously put it this way or not, there are so many categories of art (in the large sense of “art”) that we describe as “just.”

“It’s just a hobby.”

“It’s just for fun.”

“They’re just playing a game.”

Now, this post isn’t a bitter rant about semantics and it’s not ART VS. SCIENCE: THE SHOWDOWN! but I do think there’s something important here to recognize.

Even as we – meaning American society in general – talk about how we value the arts – meaning visual arts, writing, music, dance, etc. – there is often also an implicit devaluing of the arts in our behavior. Look at how many arts programs have been cut from schools. Look at the fact that so many forms of art are considered hobbies rather than valid career pursuits. Look at the fact that our very society is structured in such a way that artists generally cannot live off of making art. Artists are expected to get “real jobs” in order to “contribute to society” and then make art as well.

If there was any question about the social value of the arts, the recently proposed federal budget makes certain priorities clear. Now, I’ll pause briefly to make a couple points:

  1. I have become increasingly hopeful as I have heard politicians speak out against the proposed budget and argue for continued support for the arts. It’s good to know that there often is still a relatively strong value for art on the part of those making decisions.
  2. My bringing up the budget has nothing to do with “politics.” It’s not a question of being republican or democrat, being for or against the current administration, or whatever labels and categories it might fall in to. It is, in part, a political discussion, but it is also much more than that.

And so, we have a society that: 1) in practice, has demonstrated a trend toward cutting the arts from schools and other situations, 2) in approach, has constructed an environment where the arts are maintained on a lower level of worth than other pursuits, and 3) in word, often applies the word “just” to the arts, perpetuating a view that the arts have less to offer than other activities.

But are the arts “just” entertaining? Can we read something “just” for fun? Is there a line between “pleasure reading” and “serious reading?” Well, sure – to an extent, we could draw all sorts of divisions and spend hours arguing about genre, classification, artistic merit. We could argue semantics and all the various connotations and denotations of the words “pleasure” and “reading” and “art” and “value.” We could do a lot here. But, the possibilities of potential arguments aside, at the core of this discussion, what do we have?

Personally, I would say that there are examples in the various artistic forms that don’t have much merit. But I won’t go into specifics on these now. I judge them based on my values and my views on what art can and should contribute. It’s more personal than a discussion of art in the global sense. Generally, I would argue against writing something off as “just for fun.”

I’m not going to take the time today to go into all the benefits that the arts provide. The amount of information available is, frankly, a little overwhelming. Suffice to say that there is abundant support for the value of the arts and what they contribute to education, therapy, human development, science, economics…

And even when we talk about pleasure reading as being just a way to pass the time – is there really more to it? Just in looking at some of the books that have influenced famous authors, we find books that are considered “classics,” but we also find mysteries and science fiction and things that are often considered “fun” reading.

Why do we so often draw this distinction? Why can’t a book be fun and be worthwhile at the same time?

Think about the implicit effects of art, simply in the way we consume it. Since I’m a writer, I’ll focus on books.

Reading is often fun, yes. But it also informs us about new subjects. It takes us to new places in the world, real or imagined. It shows us expectations for how to act, how to think. It places us in the mindset of people different than us. It confronts us with circumstances that we have not experienced on our own – ethically, socially, culturally. It reinforces stereotypes or challenges them. It promotes imagination.

The list goes on. And not just for classic literature. We can get these benefits from “light” reading, “fun” reading, “pleasure” reading, just as much as we can from great novels of “literary merit.”

Every book written is going to have some sort of impact on a person that reads it. Sometimes the impact is minimal, sometimes it’s not. Maybe the reader laughs, maybe she starts to see a new possibility for her future, maybe he finally understands a viewpoint he’s been unable to grasp. Maybe she realizes that she isn’t alone – that someone else has had the same thoughts that she has. Maybe he sees himself in a new light, with fresh perspective. Maybe a simple, “fun” story inspires one of the history-makers of tomorrow to pursue his/her dreams.

Facts and science and hands-on skills and pursuits that “contribute” to society are good. They’re great, really. I’m glad science has come as far as it has. I’m glad that verifiable facts exist. I’m glad that there are people who can fix my car, who can study the weather, who can balance budgets, and handle administrative duties. This post isn’t about valuing the arts over anything else. It’s about recognizing how all these things work best together.

Facts, statistics, numbers, and “real” stuff are all important to our existence. At the same time, story and art are often the lens through which we make sense of our reality. Art can give the facts context, can give them meaning. Story is hard-wired into many (all?) humans, and we do ourselves a disservice if we shove it in the backseat until we have time for a “hobby.”

Now, it would be easy enough to say that I have a certain level of bias here. I’m a writer. I work in a library. I also work in the world of academia. I have seen and felt the effects of budgets that don’t put enough emphasis on arts funding.

But this goes far, far beyond me just trying to look after my own interests.

As a human, I know that there have been times when art has had a huge impact on my life.

During my undergrad, I took many humanities classes. In those classes, we looked at just how much influence art can have on the values and norms of a culture. Art isn’t just a removed thing that we enjoy when we want to unplug – it shapes and reflects the environment in which we live.

In the library, I have seen kids’ faces when they get to take out books. I have heard kids and adults alike talk about how much they loved a certain story, how much it impacted them.

The argument for the arts goes so far beyond those who work and create in “arts” fields. It’s really a discussion that affects all of society. The role of the arts is going to look different for everyone, but they are vital for everyone.

So what am I arguing for today?

I’m not totally sure how to put it in simple bullet points. Here are a few things:

Fight against movements to do away with the arts. Politics aside, it is vital that we continue to support arts and artists in our society.

Stay educated about the value of the arts. It’s fine to refer to something as pleasure reading, but remain aware of the role of art in daily life. And don’t lose value for it.

Get involved. Support local arts wherever you are. Maybe create some yourself. Or contribute to arts organizations – time, money, supplies – big organizations or small – it doesn’t matter. Encourage kids to read, to imagine, to dream. Make room for books, for drawing, for dance, for music. Don’t talk about these things as though they are only for fun.

But also let them be fun.

And I guess that’s my final point. Don’t feel ashamed of art. Read something you enjoy. Draw flowers or super heroes. Paint with a brush or with your fingers. Write music. Sing. Pick up an instrument – guitar, accordion, keyboard, ukulele, kazoo, whatever. Tell a story. Share your favorite stories with other people. Revel in the act of creation – whether yours or another person’s.

I’m sure that, for many people reading this, I don’t have to convince you of the importance of art. So, let’s just celebrate it together.

It doesn’t have to “mean” something. Art is contributing something worthwhile to society. Whether dragons or teenage angst, contemporary society or a dystonia or Victorian England, whether serious or absurd – art has a place.

So let’s celebrate art for all its benefits, all the reasons it’s necessary, all its darks and lights, all its whimsy and wonder, all it has to teach us, and all the reasons it simply delights us.

Let’s go create something wonderful.

Thanks for reading.

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