A Better Person, or a Happy Person?

While working this morning on a blog post for Caffeinated Press, I had included a throw-away line (since deleted) about how the breadth, not necessarily depth, of someone’s reading history made for a more well-rounded writer.
That segment and its implications have been percolating ‘twixt my earholes for the last few hours. I think I originally intended the idea to mean that exposure to many different genres makes for a better author, insofar as writers benefit from engagement with different rhetorical devices, modes of writing and standards of literary excellence. In short: “Diversity makes you stronger.”
But I’m not sure I really believe the diversity argument. After all, it’s not exactly rare for the D-word to get tossed out as some sort of MacGuffin, a trinket to be prized for its own sake, when really, what we’re talking about with D-word euphemisms is some other subject we’d prefer to avoid discussing plainly.
When I visited prison inmates during my time volunteering for the Catholic diocese and the Michigan Department of Corrections, one of the slogans I frequently heard was: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” The inmates believed, based on their own experiences, that life’s a hard teacher, but if you pay attention and at least get a passing grade, you’ll survive. Put differently, it’s not the exposure, but the engagement that counts; you can’t just drive past 8 Mile, you need to walk the block, too.
In a literary sense, a stronger writer is one who engaged in the struggle rather than merely observed it. For example, an author’s voice and rhetorical approach for a story about a young woman contemplating abortion will differ significantly depending on whether the author has had an abortion, protests against them, or is utterly ambivalent to the issue. Your depth of experience (laying on the table waiting for a surgical D&C, vs. studying the laws and stats and joining prayer chains, vs. not caring a whit but writing anyway on a work-for-hire assignment) matters more than how widely studied you are about the procedure. Right?
Maybe. But maybe not. The activist knows the subject, but not necessarily all the context on the margins that lead to a more sound interpretation of that subject. Perhaps an ethicist or a physician can speak more soundly about abortion, in toto, than the activist who undergoes the procedure or the cleric who wages spiritual warfare against it.
The better question is: From the perspective of a writer, is it more advantageous to master the niche but forego context, or to have lots of context but no real depth? There’s no good answer to that one, I’m afraid, but it’s a valuable paradigm for assessing how well a given story works.
In the context of an author’s reading habits, though, I think “the struggle” manifests itself in tackling hard material simply for the pleasure and the challenge of doing so. Too many writers of my acquaintance content themselves to reading the things they like while avoiding the things they dislike. Although at first blush such a sentiment may elicit a self-evident “Duh,” the problem lies in the Venn diagram of what I like vs. everything else. A sci-fi author who only reads sci-fi will have a solid heartbeat on the genre, but he hamstrings himself from the perspective of the totality of his art as a penmonkey.
Distilled, I think it’s a comfort question. We read what we like and we like what we read because it’s more enjoyable to read for entertainment than to read for self-improvement. The fantasy fan who consumes nothing but fantasy surely profits in her own mental world. Yet can we not say that the person who reads challenging things — histories, the classics, autobiographies — encounters new things in new ways that leaves her better off than if she had played it safe?
A recent re-read of The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius reinforced for me the value of using every action as a learning moment, even actions intended as leisure. So perhaps a different way of phrasing the “reading for fun” question is, Is it preferable to read to become a better person, or to read to become a happier person? For the two prospects, although they occasionally overlap, aren’t exactly synonymous.
Do I read The Brothers Karamazov because I should, knowing that I’d gain new insight about the human condition but also dreading the book’s length and density? Do I grab the latest Nicholas Sparks throw-away pulp just to pass the time?
These are tough questions. It’s hard to begrudge a reader the right of escape. But for an author? I think an author’s reading list needs to be less comfortable, more challenging. We owe our readers that much.

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