I recently had a conversation with a friend about the merits of reading. He works in finance and doesn’t read, apart from sports news. He's not even bothered about reading. It’s not like he wants to read more but feels pressed for time, he simply doesn’t have an interest in books. Needless to say, I was perturbed.
‘But reading is so interesting. A book can change your whole world view,’ I commented.
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, a book is like someone’s best ideas and most original thoughts and all their understandings of the world condensed into a few hundred pages. You get all of that when you read a book. You can learn things and understand the world better.’
‘But I do understand the world,’ he insisted.
‘You might think you do but when you read, you learn new things. You understand it better.’
‘Hmmm…' he murmured, 'I travel. That helps me understand the world.’
‘Okay, but when you have conversations with people when you’re travelling, it’s not the same as reading someone’s book. It’s just chit chat. Plus, you’re probably just in bars and on tourist trails anyway,’ I added a little harshly, thinking of the pictures of his recent trips I'd seen on Facebook.
‘No, I’m not, I have good conversations.’
‘Okay fine, but it’s not the same as reading that person’s book,’ I huffed.
‘It is. I talk to people and I travel, that's how I understand the world.’
‘Urghh! But why limit yourself to that? A book can change your life in just a few hours and you don't even need to go on a plane!' I enthused, thinking about some of the books that have shaped me. I’ve read books that have made me an infinitely wiser, sharper, inspired and more grounded person. I’ve been comforted, moved, entertained and informed. I couldn’t be without books.
‘Not really. I don’t think that many books change your life,’ he said.
‘Okay not every book is going to change your life, some books are just entertaining, but some are so powerful. When you read a book and you really connect with a character and see the journey they go on in the story and you witness all the experiences and insights they have, it can be so amazing. You feel like you’ve been through all that stuff too, without actually having had to go through it. You get to be wiser just from reading the story. It’s the most incredible thing.’
‘Okay but you just admitted that most books aren’t like that.’
‘No, not all books are like that, but some are. It’s the same with travelling, it’s not like you’re going to connect with everyone you meet travelling, but when it does happen, it’s great. And anyway, what’s wrong with books that are just entertaining?’
‘Nothing's wrong with that, but travelling is entertaining too.’
‘Urgghhhhh!’ I groaned, giving up.
The thing is, travelling is great, but most of us (including this guy) can only go away a few times a year due to money and work, if that. I went to New York this year and it was my first holiday in five years. Not everyone can afford to travel, but everyone can afford to buy books or get them from the library. When I went to New York, I met quite a few interesting people. Part of the reason I went there was to research my new novel, and there’s a scene in that book set in a “dive bar” (what Americans call pubs). I wanted to go to a dive bar to get a feel for it and make the scene more authentic. I walked past one near Soho on my own one night and decided to go in. It was a bit intimidating as everyone seemed to know each other and I felt a bit awkward sitting on my own at the bar, but I soon got chatting to two guys from Brooklyn. They were really cool and let me ask them all sorts of questions about New York life, from how much they pay in rent to the pros and cons of living in the city.
The next day, I hung out with a former international male model turned photographer. I met a few other cool people while I was there and had a brilliant time. I loved chatting to those people and my trip to New York was so interesting and enjoyable, but part of the reason it fascinated me was because of the cultural references I’d read about. While I was there, I was thinking about my favourite books set in New York, such as A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara, Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho, and Breakfast At Tiffany's by Truman Capote. And although the people I met and the conversations I had were great, I bet if they each wrote a book, I’d probably learn more about each person, getting a closer idea of what they’re passionate about, how they feel and what moves them. I know that when I wrote my debut novel, Perfect Match, it was inspired by pretty much all the funniest and most awkward moments of my twenties and all the most interesting people I met during that decade. It also contains my key life lessons from that time and the wisdom I gained through trial and error and a lot of mistakes. I feel it's a much more interesting and in-depth reflection of who I am than a half hour chat with me would probably be.
Travel is great, but you can travel every day when you read. It makes me sad that some people don’t have enough intrigue or wanderlust to take advantage of all the beautiful journeys they could be going on through books.
What are your thoughts? Are you more of a traveller or a reader? Or both?