Having a good book in my hands is like putting ground under my feet. Perhaps to some, reading is seen as a way of escaping or of disengaging with the world but for me, it is a way of engaging as completely as I possibly can. Reading is an act of trust, artistic expression, and connecting to a world entirely outside our own perspective.
A story can collapse time and space and connect us to people, societies and experiences that we have never known. In an article titled "Don't Turn Away from the Art of Life", Arnold Weinstein says "We enter the bookstore, see the many volumes arrayed there, and think: so much to read, so little time. But books do not take time; they give time, they expand our resources of both heart and mind. It may sound paradoxical, but they are, in the last analysis, scientific, for they trace the far-flung route by which we come to understand our world and ourselves. They take our measure."
Losing our self in a book is an act of trust. We temporarily surrender our mind to someone else’s, and most often, someone we have never met. We place our mind in the head of a stranger and follow them on their journey through their experiences, their revelations, and their neuroses. Or, at least through their attempt to rationalize the very things that drive them nuts because in order to write anything coherently, it takes a certain amount of dedicated obsession.
There are authors who I have come to trust and from the first word of one of their books, I am ready to forget myself. If we can open our mind when reading, we give our complete attention to an author's voice and our own mind quiets. This isn’t to say we should trust even our most beloved authors completely and that we should take their words without discernment. The books I own are full of marginalia and underlined passages that I might never look back to again, all inspired by the author's words. But, we can receive their perspective as theirs and allow it to expand our own, whether or not we see the world in the same way.
Reading a book brings you so close to another human being. It is there, in those shared and intimate words that connection can take place. Readers are even so gracious to give themselves over to those of us pursuing the most narcissistic vocation out there (according to Sylvia Plath). Not only do readers listen to us narcissists, they know that we egoists are lying! Neil Gaiman gave a talk on Long Now called "How Stories Last" and says this
"The act of reading a story or of listening to a story is an act of knowing you are being lied to."
Perhaps this is why writers must and usually are voracious readers even though they are completely opposite expressions. There must be a balance.
Reading is an art. It is an invisible creative practice that can create progressive social change. It is a way to connect to a certain stillness within our self that lies beneath our thoughts and identity. This type of art is private and never showy. While a reader can gain a certain amount of satisfaction from finishing a book, readers do not declare a final 'work', they just pick up another book and keep reading. Their humble effort in change is often persistent and ongoing.
Also from Gaiman's talk, he says of readers that "You have walked with the people in the story. You have looked out through their eyes. You know what they believe. You have walked with them and by walking with them you have left your own reality and entered theirs."
Whether or not we open books as an act of trust, of surrender, or even to escape our reality, we will come back changed, with knowledge, with experience, and with company that can make our lives better.
Image from buzzfeed.com