Before you wonder why I’m trying to tackle such a general question, let me narrow it down, because it stems from something very specific that I noticed last week. I was reading some blog reviews about Dorothy Dunnett’s books, and came upon something that made me do a double take. The person reviewing The Game of Kings said that Francis Crawford, the main character, had a tendency to break into quotations in various foreign languages (mostly Latin and French), and they were never translated for the reader. And this was regarded as a negative point.
My first reaction? “What? Have you never heard of Babelfish? Can you not simply look it up??” Granted, that’s not entirely fair, because some of the quotations are from more archaic French, and Babelfish would probably have a hard time with them. But this reminded me of when I was writing a fanfic, entitled Apotheosis, and someone said I should change the title because few people would know what the word meant. I did NOT change the title. My essential response was, “It’s spelled D-I-C-T-I-O-N-A-R-Y, and I am not going to spoonfeed a reader who expects just to lie there and do no work at all.” My thought was that I refused to reduce things to the lowest level of readership. (I did make one concession: I put the definition of “apotheosis” at the end of the story, after the Epilogue.)
This ties in with another thing that C.S. Lewis said long ago. When criticized that perhaps his children’s books (the Chronicles of Narnia) were somewhat above children’s heads, he said he believed it was a bad idea only to give children things that sat on the same level they were sitting on. The best way to write for kids, he thought, was to give them something to reach up to, something to aspire to. Something to grow up to.
When I was ten, my aunt gave me The Lord of the Rings to read. I slowly ploughed through the book, and had forgotten half of the beginning by the time I reached the end. But I was utterly enthralled, because I was reaching up to a wonderful adult world of fantasy. I had enjoyed The Hobbit, which was more on my own level, but this — this was sheer magic to me. And it wasn’t the magic of Middle-Earth, but the magic of mysterious things that I could only half-understand, but which I could reach up toward and begin to touch if I just kept reading.
I had a similar experiences with other books that were “too old” for me. It would never have occurred to me to want them simplified and brought down to my level. Rather, I wanted to stretch myself until I could get up to their level.
So why do we read? Is it only to be shown or taught things we already know? What’s the point of that? Do we not want to stretch ourselves beyond where we already are?
Much of the time, the context in which the quotations in the Lymond Chronicles occur gives the reader some idea of what they mean, even if they’re not fully understood. But even if they go right over the reader’s head, they do something else for countless Dorothy Dunnett fans — they make us try to find out. We go to dictionaries, we do web searches for pictures, we read histories. I can’t count the histories I’ve read because Dunnett referred to places or events in passing, without explaining much about them in the plot. The ancient authors whose works I’ve dipped into! My eagerness to watch a recent documentary about the African city of Timbuktu, because one of Dunnett’s books took us there!
Sometimes we do need a simple read, something light to take to the beach or hotel, or to help us fall asleep. But do we really want to spend our whole reading lives being the equivalent of babies that just lie back and get fed mush with a spoon, or do we want to get up, learn to walk, and find more complex culinary masterpieces to feast on? Surely it’s what we don’t know, the things that aren’t handed to us on a silver platter, that are the most interesting things to read?
That’s how I feel about it, anyway.