# 24 on my 99 Life Tips–A List is: Reading about something is not the same as doing something. Reading a story about Paris is not the same as actually visiting Paris. This applies to every aspect of reading. As valuable as it is, it is no substitute for experience.
The intended audience for this tip is the ardent, imaginative reader. Your mind can trick you into believing you’ve done and experienced something because you’ve read about it. You may convince yourself you’ve learned all there is to know because you’ve read about it. I don’t mean to imply your reading will cause a psychotic break with reality. But the emotional and intellectual engagement stirred by reading good writing creates a world. A real one. And sometimes it’s difficult for the most intelligent to realize that all the things they’ve read about, and therefore felt as if they were present seeing, hearing, feeling, fighting, loving, longing in the scenes and characters is real only in their mind. Perhaps this has happened to you.
I am not being disparaging. Real in the mind is real. There is nothing more “real”. But no one is a trout fisherman because they read a story about trout fishing outside Pamplona. Even if you recall details like the crisp newspapers to wrap the day’s catch in. And regardless whether you can almost taste the dust from the bus ride back to town. Dust you’ll quench with Sangria in the bar in time for the day’s bull running. No, dear reader, reading about drinking red wine won’t stain your teeth or make you drunk. Even when Hemingway is writing the tale.
I always think of two things in relation to this tip:
The first is the scene in Good Will Hunting in which Robin Williams’ psychiatrist character chastises Matt Damon’s ne’er do well savant character. Damon’s Will Hunting receives a dressing down for being so smug. He’s never actually done the things he’s read about. He’s never been out of Boston. Although he could recite all kinds of facts about Michelangelo, gleaned from the books he’s read, he doesn’t know what it smells like inside the Sistine Chapel. Because he’s never been. “You’re Just A Kid”. Williams’ character tells him. He’s never really been in love. He’s merely read about a lot of things. Though he can provide brilliant analysis with his near perfect recall, reading is no substitute for the actual streets of Rome. It’s a fantastic scene.
The second is on a cross-country car trip when I was 20. I had picked up a Frenchman named Dominic hitchhiking from Binghamton, NY, on his way to see a girl in Sterling, CO. After a side-trip to New York City we started west. On the second day, Dominic grew critical of the countryside in his fatigue at seeing the farms and cornfields along the interstate.
As night fell on a long day of driving, my passenger got impatient. He pleaded with me to get out of the cornfields. After seemingly endless miles of nothing but corn, we saw an exit towards a town. Maybe it would be a more suburban, less pastoral view. I could drive forever at that age, but the corn was like a green ocean. I was suffering sensory deprivation. Plus, we were forced to limit our expenditures to fuel and food. We would not waste precious money on a hotel for the few hours of sleep we’d need before heading out again. I either needed to drive on to a rest stop, or find a suitable place.
This is the West
We came off the interstate and I turned off the service road onto a long, wide 2-lane in western Ohio. Mailboxes dispersed on either side marked the corners of front yards as big as baseball fields. Dark, wood-framed farmhouses sat well back from the road. Only occasionally did we see a light in a window. Still, Dom suggested I pull off into one of the front yards where we could sleep. He insisted we could set up my tent beside my Toyota, or sleep under the stars in our sleeping bags.
“What? Right in their front yard?” I said, “Have you lost your mind?”
“Oh, not at all,” he replied in good but broken English, “This is the West, I have read all about it.”
“Oh,” says I, “you’ve read about it. Good. Then you’ve no doubt read about shotguns, too.”
I kept right on driving, headed back nearer the interstate, away from Dom’s temptation to get us shot at or dog bit, and eventually found a dirt farm road leading back into a cornfield where we would be safe and could get a few hours shut eye.
“I have read about it.” I’ll never forget that. Don’t you forget it either.