During the summer, I tend to indulge to the fullest my whimsical literary appetite by reading as much of whatever I like whenever I like. Freed from the structured discipline of assigned reading for school, I relish picking up my favorite old tales and perusing them once again, or finding some delightful novel I’ve not yet read. For instance, this particular summer I’ve had the thrill of revisiting the cheerfully absurd A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Sherlock Holmes canon. Other favorites for relaxing reading are the All Creatures Great and Small series, or the short stories of P.G. Wodehouse. Honestly, I’m a pushover for a solid adventure or a good mystery.
However, I can’t say this indulgent method of reading–if one could call it a method—is a practice I especially recommend, because it can often lead to a frightful by-product of reading only for pleasure: escapism.
Now, before I get blasted (though who would do the blasting, I haven’t the faintest idea) for discouraging reading, I’d best clarify what I mean by escapism. Almost everyone has something of the escapist in him; if we didn’t, both popular and classic novels would be non-existent and everyone would have merely shrugged and turned away when talkies were invented. Everyone loves a good story, whether it be a laughable one or a genuine tragedy; there is a momentous power in fiction, the power to move us or call us to contemplate some ponderous truth about God or men or society or the whole vast cosmos. And of course, fiction also bears the power of drawing us away from our own day-to-day world into an imaginary one that is exciting, fantastic, soul-stirring—and that is where escapism comes into play. By escapism I don’t merely mean withdrawing into an imaginary world as an “escape” from responsibilities or personal problems; after all, it is good to take breaks from our difficulties, to get a little physical or mental relaxation, so that we can return to our duties with a fresher mind and spirit. Where escapism becomes most dangerous is when the imagination becomes alluring for its own sake; when it becomes not merely a break from reality, but a serious distraction from it; when an imaginary world becomes entirely more desirable to us than the real one.
I realized this quite suddenly today when I caught myself seriously wondering whether it would be better for me to step outside to enjoy the garden, or curl up with my battered old Complete Sherlock Holmes, Vol. II., and follow my dear Dr. Watson and his eccentric friend through one of their now-familiar mysterious adventures. I saw the flowers peeping at me from the other side of the window, shining in the sunlight, and I realized that there shouldn’t have been any contest. How could I dare to pick my favorite imaginary world, narrow and two-dimensional because it exists only in my mind, over the glorious reality all around me? Even if I were in the most desperate straits–which, thank God, I am not–I ought to be able to recognize that this life, this REAL, living, breathing world, is too monumental a gift to actually compare with an imaginary one. I love my imaginary worlds; but they are only, at best, a quaint imitation of God’s creation. It reminded me of a Chesterton quote: “Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction; for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it.” It must also be true, then, that as genuinely good as our fictitious worlds may be, every aspect of the real world is better if only for the simple fact that it is real.
There is a great, grand world outside; and with all its dark sides and rough edges, it is inherently good. God gave it to us as a gift to be cherished, not ignored. So, Sherlock Holmes went back on the bookshelf, and he will stay there the rest of the summer. I’ve read those tales before, but today comes only once, and I intend to thoroughly enjoy it.