One of my beloved childhood places to visit is the Canyon Lake Library. Ever since I was 6 or 7 years old, it is the one place that is usually guaranteed a visit every week, if not more, during much of the summer. It will always be a memorable place at which I picked up my food. Brain food, that is.
At first, it was story time. The wonderful Ms. Ginny always had a great story at hand as we gathered around. My mom did very much the same thing at bedtime with the books we had borrowed that day.
Soon enough, I began to read on my own and discovered the incredible narratives and classics that teem with adventures and life lessons alike. Starting with the “Magic Tree House” and the “Hardy Boys,” I plowed my way through swathes of great mysteries, good ol’ quests and fairytales.
At age 7, I read through the first book of what was to become Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, “Eragon,” and didn’t understand most of it. But, it was my first 500-plus page book! A couple of years later, during a lazy summer, I set another reading milestone for myself: reading through the whole Harry Potter series in 12 days (all seven books, each from nearly 300 to 900 pages).
From there, I read the classics and other newer stories: “Treasure Island,” “Sherlock Holmes” (the original series), “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” “Percy Jackson,” “Ranger’s Apprentice,” “Lord of the Rings” and so many more.
In recent years, I have tried to read the more modern classics, having already read some of the older epics, fables and tall tales. “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” “Lord of the Flies” (I still feel bad for Piggy), “Brave New World” and “1984” are among some of the most recent reads.
Somewhere along the way, my dad introduced choice books about war that exposed me to the realities of that experience, helping dispel much of the utter nonsense that surrounds the ideas of the military from a youth’s mind and gave me clearer examples of what true heroes and leaders look like.
And in the last two years, I have begun reading books that introduce a whole other kind of reading: true brain food.
Mostly thanks to the Torrey Youth Academy, I have read authors like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Plato, John Locke, Thomas, Hobbes and many more. These authors are a mash of philosophical, political or religious writers that expound on finer points of our existence on this little speck of matter called Earth.
Would you like to know the funniest thing about these authors? They pointed me back to where I had begun my journey: with the fables and fairytales.
The good C.S. Lewis wrote “No book is really worth reading at the age of 10 which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of 50 and beyond.”
Very similarly, Chesterton says much the same thing, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.”
These authors thereby helped me realize the value in continuing to read for fun, while letting me discover the crucial need to read books that exposed me to ideas, values and ways to better myself.
For a good while I believed that I had wasted days of my life by reading fiction and old tales. But then I realized that reading is quite like eating. One eats the normal fare of meat and vegetables: the necessary things to survive. But what fun is eating only the necessities? What about the sweeter fare found in bread, snacks and dessert?
There appears to be, like most things in life, a crucial balance. If you eat only meat and vegetables, you might be healthy and sustained, but that is all you will be. If you eat only snacks and desserts, you might be quite a bit less healthy and sustained, but alive nonetheless. Sure, you might run across a bad egg here or a rotten apple there, but many of the options out there can only provide nutrients for the active human.
It is the same with books. For the healthy mind, one will want to have portions of poetry, worldview, politics and self-help. Then one will likely desire something to snack on, savory helpings found in Shakespearian pies, mystery cakes, and epic cookies. More often than not, though, you discover that these “snacks” have a lot more substance to them than originally thought.
In summary, fiction is not necessary for the survival of an active mind. But it is like what C.S. Lewis says about friendship: “It is one of those things that give value to survival.”