Are Books Useful?

Okay, this may be a little TMI, but I have to spill.  The other day DH and I enjoyed a quiet dinner after watching Eldest perform in a jazz competition. 

Because I’m me, and DH is his delightful, humorous self, I began asking random questions.  A kind of get-to-know-you Q&A session after being well acquainted for more than 25 years.  Hey, I’m random, what can I say…

Anyway, as the quiet dinner escalated into side-splitting laughter, I asked, “Would you rather be a toupee or a jock strap?”

Without missing a beat DH answered, “A jock strap.  At least then I’d be useful.”

And so I’ve been thinking about usefulness.  Non-fiction writers are useful in passing along knowledge.  Poets are useful in that they offer desperation inspiration to their readers.  Songwriters, cook book authors, technical-writing scribes, sign makers, marketers, journalists and columnists are all useful to their target audience.

Authors of fiction–pure, simple, fiction–also serve a purpose.  We usefully send microscopic lessons to our readers.  We subliminally prod them with our messages.  Right?

Because if a book has absolutely no purpose beyond sheer entertainment–no moral, ethical or inspirational value–what is the point?

I don’t believe books can only provide a reprieve from the real world.   They must have some greater purpose than their simple existence–like a down and out toupee.  Books must join the ranks with jock straps in providing some level of service to the masses.

Underdeveloped plots with flowery prose are the toupees of the publishing industry.  They might look good on paper and bald pates. 

Well-defined characters with internal growth who overcome external conflict are the jock straps of the written word.  They support a story arc and give purpose to a manuscript.  They nudge the reader to examine his/her views on some level.  Bullies, alcoholism, love, faith, morals, hope, fear, prejudice, community, etc…

A quick review of random books on my shelf prove this is true.

  • The cartoonish Diary of a Whimpy Kid highlights self-acceptance.
  • Cane River by Lalita Tademy is a book about race, prejudice, hope and faith framed as a simple woman’s journey through life.
  • Any John Grisham novel: morality wrapped in suspense, intrigue and drama.
  • Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook portrays devotion and challenges readers to assess relationships in their lives.
  • The Gruffalo is a delightful picture book about self-preservation and problem solving for young readers anxious to see if the mouse gets eaten during his walk through the woods.
  • While posing as a  fantasy with demons and magicians, The Bartimeaus Trilogy by Jonathon Stroud depicts integrity.
  • In addition to scaring them out of their socks, Stephen King provides his readers with thought provoking plots.

While nothing should kill a manuscript faster than an overt, in-your-face message, I wonder: can a manuscript survive without some underlying purpose? 

I say no.  What’s your take? 

Can you provide titles in which the sole purpose of the novel is to act as a toupee and look good in your hands?  Or, do you believe that every book has a deeper purpose like our friend Mr. Jock Strap?

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16 responses to “Are Books Useful?

  1. I think that you have to include underlying messages/themes in fiction for the reader identify with the characters on a deeper level. Or a lower one, anyway. Is it a coincidence that toupees are on the surface but a jockstrap is undercover? 🙂

  2. I cannot name any specific novels in which there is no point to it. By nature, a story needs to have some form of conflict and resolution, or else there’s no point. Most publishers are going to catch a manuscript that would be so shallow as to not have any conflict. At least I hope so.

    • Void,

      That’s my point exactly. I have wracked my brain trying to find an example and even on the most basic level, I have struggled to find a book that doesn’t teach something in some way. Some more overt than others, but a message is there, none-the-less.

  3. jmartinlibrarian

    Words teach, entertain, fulfill, instruct, persuade, inform and so much more!

    I love stories, I hope we never stop telling them.

  4. So true, Cate. Books fill souls, not shelves. I always think of some of the kids I’ve taught. They have so little in their lives – physically and emotionally. These are the kids who have no role models at home – and so many of them are wonderful, wonderful people. A lot of the reason is because they’ve learned what reality can be by reading. Books fill so many voids – they’re not toupees 🙂

    PS – I’d love to eavesdrop on the whole conversation between you & hubby 🙂

    • Jemi,

      Once again I so wish you taught in my little school on the prairie. No matter how entertaining a book is, or no matter how hard you have to dig, every book offers a little nugget of value. Your perspective is heartbreaking in the reality of it all, but wonderful in that we have so many great books to help so many great children.

      The conversation was amazing. I could barely breathe by the time we were done.

  5. I have no brain today – I forgot to tell you I’ve got an award for you over at my blog 🙂

  6. OMG, you had me giggling like mad. And I agree with you, even the silliest book usually has a point or purpose–although think with the best books you don’t notice until you are given reason to think about it.

    • Michelle,

      Great point. The best books are the ones where the message isn’t apparent, sometimes for years. I love when that aha moment hits. I usually reread the book and enjoy it on a whole new level then. The power of literature…

  7. There are a lot of books out there with no underlying message, books you forget the minute you put them down. Books that are meant to only entertain-chicklit comes to mind–be it momentarily. I perfer a novel with a message whether it be one I like or not, novels like KITE RUNNER or HISTORY OF LOVE or ATONEMENT.

    This is an interesting take. Are you the toupee or the jockstrap???
    Like DH’s answer by the way!!

    • Yvonne,

      He made me laugh–as usual. I’d rather be ugly and useful than just a pretty head.

      And speaking of heads, I’ve been wracking my brains to think of a book that is nothing but entertainment–which is a purpose, but not the kind of which I’m trying to define–and can’t really think of any. Even on the most minimalistic level, chick lit does stretch the reader to think about things in a different way. I would say that fundamentally, they are powerful books regarding the age-old lesson that “money isn’t everything”. At least the ones I’ve read.

      If I had to pick a genre that really was written for entertainment only, it would have to be the mainstream thrillers. But even then, there seems to be an underlying message that a)crime doesn’t pay, b)detectives need to evaluate their priorities regarding their personal life and c)everyone is enticed to cross the line.

  8. That escapism and entertainment are essential in our lives in my opinion anyway. So, in a sense even without that overall message it would still be essential.

    • Lisa,

      Agreed. Even without a message at all. Fluff for the sake of letting the reader escape for just a moment into another world is a purpose unto its own.

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