Welcome to National Reading Month. Today is the birthday of Dr. Seuss (Theordor Geisel). Since so many children begin reading with Dr. Seuss, March has been designated National Reading Month in his honor. Nothing could be more deserving of a holiday than reading. In an era when active, visual displays and lifelike animation readily draw eyes away from books, it is more important than ever to think about what reading has done for us. As a society, no significant advancements were made beyond agriculture and shepherding until writing was developed. We needed a way to convey knowledge not only over distance, but also over time. To participate in writing is to taste immortality. To read is to communicate with those long gone or far distant. How trivial we’ve made it all seem. Writing was a truly remarkable achievement. The entire purpose of schooling was originally to teach our young to read and do math. So we should all celebrate National Reading Month and put down the devices for a while and curl up with a book.
Okay, well, reading on devices does count. Still, some of us can’t help ourselves from acquiring books. I once visited a house of a friend’s relative on a trip. It turned out that we would be spending the night. As I glanced around my new surroundings I noticed something odd. There were no books in the house. None. It felt so hollowing that I knew I could not long remain there. Every room of our apartment (except the bathroom) has books. I travel with books. Even if it’s going to be a fairly brief car ride, I wonder what happens if I break down and don’t have anything to read while awaiting rescue? On the bus everyday I have at least one book with me, and sometimes two or three. I’m lost without them. Libraries and book stores are my favorite places to be. Surrounded by words, comforted by communication.
Dr. Seuss was part of my childhood reading, but not so much as Bible stories and Easy Readers. We didn’t buy any Dr. Seuss, but I did check his books out from the library. When my daughter was born we corrected that misdemeanor. We purchased nearly every readily available book by Theodor Geisel, and this was in the days before Amazon. Some were difficult to locate, being in rural Wisconsin, but we persisted and instilled the love of reading into another generation. We have holidays to celebrate wars and victories in wars. Great deaths and momentous births. Love, fear, and the Irish. And yes, reading. The cracks in winter are beginning to show. Light is beginning, ever so slowly to increase. Why not celebrate the coming of the light with enlightenment for the mind? It’s time to read a book.
He lived long and prospered. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but the icons of my youth have been dying. I have to confess to having sat far too many hours in front of the television as a young person, but fantasy of all sorts helped me cope with reality. Leonard Nimoy was a kind of father figure, in a way. Similar to Jonathan Frid, Russell Johnson, and Fred Rogers, all of whom stood in for an absentee parent and showed me different aspects of what it meant to be a man. Watching them die is like having someone tear pages from the book of my life—they made strong impressions, even though it was all make-believe. It’s difficult to say why Leonard Nimoy’s passing hit me so hard. I guess that the conceit of Spock living far longer than humans took hold at some level, and the rational, unflappable Vulcan seemed like a stable, if somewhat emotionally cold father to a child who was, in his own mind, conceived by the television itself.
I don’t really consider myself a nerd. I don’t have the tech to back me up. I’m more like a hermit who spends weekdays in Manhattan. Still, when anyone says Kirk or Picard, there is only one right answer. I watched Star Trek when it was new, still in original reruns. My mother decried it as “silly nonsense,” but along with other monster generation kids, I had my face pressed to the screen waiting to see what new and weird form of life might appear. It was the late sixties and all of this was fresh and untried. Star Trek became a vital part of my childhood. I think it might have been because this was a place with no limits. No limits beyond a shoestring budget, in any case. Space, as I was learning, was vast. There were endless possibilities out there.
As an adult, the possibilities seem somewhat severely effaced. I’ve tried to be rational and moral and conscientious, but I haven’t really held down a regular career. I don’t watch television any more, and instead read books and ask probing questions. Why does Spock resonate so much with me? Was it because he was apparently immune to emotion? Or maybe he was simply able to rise above it, since everyone knows he is half-human and even Vulcans have emotions, albeit deeply buried. Those of us who followed the original crew through the movies suffered through his death before. And his resurrection. This time, though, it’s not Spock who’s gone. Leonard Nimoy is one of those few people who, in their own lifetime, become a symbol. And symbols, if they are of any use, live long and prosper well after their creators pass on.
The human brain is a marvelous thing. Neuroscientists find all kinds of surprises as they probe the gray matter in our heads. One of those findings is that we don’t always believe what we say we do. Some time ago I read Matthew Hutson’s Seven Laws of Magical Thinking. Scientists didn’t like the book too much since it caught them with their empirical pants down. Really, there’s no shame in that. We are at the mercy of our own minds. In this month’s Atlantic magazine, Hutson has a brief piece entitled “The Science of Superstition.” In the space of just over two columns he runs down the evidence that even those who claim materialism is the answer to all life’s mysteries, even those scientists can’t escape superstition. Friday the thirteenth, a couple of weeks back, I walked under a ladder on my way to work. What happened? I had to go to work. Is that bad luck? I suspect it’s a matter of opinion. I’m the first to admit, however, that I did have fleeting reservations.
Study after study, as cited by Hutson, shows that physiological measures indicate anxiety when those who don’t believe in God say bad things about him/her. We all attribute cause to natural events, even those steeped in the hard sciences. Thinking about death reveals subconscious beliefs about God. It’s the way we’re hardwired. Hutson himself, if I recall correctly, doesn’t really attribute much credence to the supernatural. This is all a matter of what our material brains believe. Interestingly, we are evolved to be open to religious ideas. Many choose to believe, despite our brains, that we are evolutionarily deceived. Screwed by natural selection, as it were.
Far more interesting, in my deluded opinion, is that we don’t really choose what to believe. At least not at first blush. Our brains tell us to believe in the invisible causation that just doesn’t fit in a material world. To get beyond that takes some effort. It does give one pause, however, to consider that blind evolution has puckishly kept all this in the mix. Does evolution have a sense of humor? Perhaps we are all taking all of this far too seriously. Or maybe, just maybe, our brains are smarter than we think.