Why do you read? Or, if you write, why do you write? My theory: You want to more than to “co-exist” with your fellow humans. You want more than just to be part of a community only because you happen to “be there.” You want meaningful transactions with people. Or put differently, you want transactions of meaning.
Reading and writing – receiving or giving the gift of meaningful language – are such transactions. If the story (or poem) you are reading contains some piece of truth that you can weave into your own life, the transaction is mutually satisfying. Authors write because they have something they think is worth sharing. Readers read out of an admission, even if not a conscious admission, that they are looking for a piece of truth that is currently outside of their own awareness.
What often makes us say “Aha!” as a reader are those moments, I believe, when we find a piece of truth that we’ve been looking for. We’re grateful to the writer for helping us to more fully live the way we were truly designed to live. And, if we take the time to let the writer know how they’ve served us, he or she also benefits by knowing their labor has not been in vain. That’s a complete literary transaction. After transactions like that, I’m much less likely to want to fight, cheat, tear down, or otherwise act immorally toward you.
As I’ve begun to embrace more and more of social media on the Internet, I’m beginning to understand the potential that now exists for “complete transactions.” Not for thousands of years have the Earth’s people been able to touch each other’s lives like we can today. I’m beginning to understand, I hope not naively, that while we can never make ourselves perfect or divine, we now have tools that, had they existed in the ’20s and ’30s, may have made it much more difficult for the demagogues of the world to sweep us into horrible wars.
Good literature is one key to peace. When we stop reading each other, when we stop paying attention to each other’s words and stories, we too easily oppose one another. The good news is, it’s not the only key. Musicians, performers and other kinds of artists most definitely can serve the same purpose. The ancient Greeks knew the power of “the true, the good, and the beautiful” to transform. Not only through the arts, but perhaps primarily through the arts and our faith beliefs, we share what is true, good and beautiful with one another. By producing and consuming these things, we make each other more fully human, and in so doing chip away at reasons to be in conflict.