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Books can provide a break from reality

A couple Christmases ago, my husband gave me a coffee mug that declares, “A book a day keeps reality away.”

Are you ready to join me for a break from everyday reality?

In one sense, any work of fiction would suffice. The characters you will meet were formed in an imagination. They encounter situations designed to challenge them, and their decisions often reveal the best or the worst facets of human nature. My favorite books, however, take an additional step beyond reality as we know it. I find special delight in the imagined settings and weird characters found in science fiction and fantasy books – hobbits, elves, magicians, wizards, robots, time travelers and aliens.

Well-written titles in this genre present aspects of the human dilemma in innovative ways. By evoking exotic settings, authors frame common problems in ways that generate new perspectives. When I read such books, I learn more about myself and my beliefs. I learn to challenge my presuppositions. I glimpse reality through someone else’s eyes. The surface story may involve characters and plots, but if you look beneath the wrapping, you can often discover what an author is really asking you to think about.

Take, for example, the children’s classic “Green Eggs and Ham,” by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel). On the surface, the story is about one creature’s efforts to get another to sample some green food. Parents have often hoped their children will find within its pages encouragement to try new things (perhaps other green foods, such as vegetables). Digging a little deeper, the story also talks about prejudices. The reluctant eater may believe that green is the wrong color for ham and eggs, but when he tries them, he likes them. In this way, the story opens the door to understanding that there is no inherently wrong color for food, and there is no wrong color for people either.

Science fiction and fantasy have been challenging the imaginations of readers and hearers for centuries. “Beowulf,” a 10th-century epic with supernatural monsters, offers perspectives on pride, codes of honor, and the ultimate legacy of war. “Don Quixote,” written by Miguel de Cervantes in the early 17th century, may be best known for its eponymous knight, his penchant for fighting windmills, and the magical entities that oppose him. Beneath these plot points and humor lie some serious cultural observations and an embedded critique of the Spanish Inquisition.

In a similar way, Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” (18th century) provides an amusing tale of a journey to one land where inhabitants are tiny, to another where they are gigantic, to one that floats in the clouds, and to one ruled by horses. Swift’s real purpose in exploring these fanciful countries was to satirize aspects of his own society.

The 19th century brought the world “Frankenstein,” by Mary Shelley. The surface plot offers readers a tale about a scientist who creates a monster, but those who look deeper find profound questions about what it means to be human and thoughts concerning how our monsters are actually created. A few decades later, George MacDonald opened up imagined worlds to explore Christian themes of light and darkness. In the 20th century, authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis continued this quest.

Classical science fiction and fantasy authors include Ray Bradbury, who wrote “The Martian Chronicles,” which takes place in an imagined environment that doesn’t resemble Mars at all. At an elemental level, the book addresses humanity’s unquenchable thirst to return to the garden. In recent years, Andy Weir wrote “The Martian,” with a surface story that is more closely connected to our planetary neighbor. Under its surface, however, the book discusses the roles played by math and science in problem solving and how teamwork outperforms individual efforts. Through his story, Weir offers a vision of humanity transcending the allegiances that traditionally divide us.

If you’re curious about what humanity’s plight might look like from a variety of vantage points, consider the science fiction and fantasy genre. The Barbara Rose Johns Farmville-Prince Edward Community Library has lots to offer through curbside checkout and digital access to e-books and audiobooks.

KAREN BELLENIR has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.