Many of the people I feel the most affection for in my life are dead. In fact, a majority of them I have never met. They were bound by different fragments of space, different periods of time, than the dimensional intersections I occupy. And yet, in many ways, they remain close — almost within touching distance, almost like I can talk to them.
How can a connection like that possibly exist, you might wonder. Well, to question that is to rediscover your awe for a technology we now find so commonplace we forgot that it is, essentially, a form of magic: A cover separated in the middle by a spine to contain within it a block of papers; papers that contain secrets of the past and the keys to the future, papers that create worlds that go on to shape our own world, papers that give a voice to those who no longer have a living body.
A book is a coherent expression of the thought patterns that made some unique human being, somewhere, who they were. In the case of the best books, it’s a condensed packaging of the hard-earned wisdom acquired over a lifetime — a human life as an artifact, if you will. Reading Aristotle or Shakespeare isn’t only a matter of collecting facts and dwelling on narratives; it’s a process of actively deconstructing somebody else’s complex experience so we can better grasp our differences and commonalities.
Let’s say that the average book today has somewhere in the range of 300 pages. That’s roughly 80,000 words. These 80,000 words create a tightly-fitted whole that we often summarize as a soundbite — a takeaway or a lesson. And yet, within that whole, there is an incalculable number of interacting parts. And in the greatest of books, after the editing and the likely perfectionism that it took to create them, very few words are wasted. Each word and each sentence has its literal meaning, but behind each word and each sentence, there is a corresponding memory or experience that the writer used to construct what eventually come out onto the page. To grasp the literal meaning of words and sentences is a matter of understanding the language, but to truly capture the depth of words and sentences, some part of your own memory has to interact with the memory of the writer.
In this way, reading isn’t about blind absorption. Reading is a conversation. It’s not a passive activity, but an active one, and your relative gain from a book depends on how interactive that process is for you. If the words and the sentences come alive when you read them, bouncing out of the page, emboldened by the connection of your own memories and experiences to the memories and experiences of the writer, then that conversation means something. Otherwise, you’re merely absorbing empty words.
We can all likely remember instances in our lives when somebody told us something that didn’t at all register as being important or valuable at the time, but in hindsight, in light of further experience, the profundity of that past conversation suddenly made a whole lot of sense — and not just in a trivial way, but in a deeply, deeply meaningful way. That’s how it is with books, too. That’s why reading the same book at different times can often be a completely different experience. And it makes sense: to think that at some partial, incomplete point in your own life you’re ready to fully absorb the total wisdom of what was likely a product of a lifetime of focused experience is a kind of naivete that just wastes time. More often than not, we don’t read or converse to only discover who somebody else is or what they have to say, but we do it primarily to make better sense of who we are.
Most people intuitively recognize the benefits of reading, but they tend to approach it in a counterproductive way. They set goals about how many books they want to finish in a year, or they make themselves read something that doesn’t speak to them because it’s popular or because everyone else is doing it, not realizing that this isn’t a domain in which quantity of hours spent directly leads to quality of input.
People overlook the fact it’s better to read one book at the right time than it to read ten books at the wrong time. Or that what speaks to a broader category of people might not speak to them. Or that most books simply aren’t meant be finished as full course meals but are better off sampled, in bits and pieces, as individual dishes separated by time, other books, and other experiences in between. Just like you don’t exhaust the total hours of lifetime conversation with someone you care about or are close to in one long session, it’s not necessary or useful to do so with books, either. Some books are meant to be left unfinished, even if earlier parts of them have already changed your outlook on things. A few are intended to be read in between other texts, woven into a network of disparate but connecting ideas and thoughts. Many are not meant to be read at all.
Most of us develop a relationship with reading early on in life, usually through the education system that instructs us. Given the methodology of most education systems, however, the relationship they create gets it backward. We begin to think of reading as a means to an end, one with a specific purpose, driven by some sort of a goal that masquerades as learning. And sometimes, this kind of reading has its place. But at its core, reading is a process of becoming, meditated by a form of conversation, that helps us better bring out what it is that is most honest and most pertinent to who we are, who we were, and most importantly, who we could be.
Our lives and our behaviors are constrained by the limits of our thoughts. These thoughts are given a form and a context by a combination of our genes and our surrounding physical environments, but for the most part, they are gifted to us through the conversations we have with other people, both living and dead, both those who are physically close to us and those who are near only through the voices we replay in our minds. These interactions may come to us as bits and pieces, but collectively, over time, they have a greater impact on the way our lives turn out than pretty much any other factor. Conversations are what indirectly dictate the kinds of behaviors we express into the physical world around us.
When you think of reading as this conversation — a deeper interaction — between self and other, you are also able to close that gap between your sense of self and that other, enabling a connection that transcends the boundaries of space and time. It’s why I can feel affection and warmth for people I have never met or am likely to meet. It’s also why books can often have a more significant impact on a child than parents who raised them, the teachers who taught them, the friends that shared their time with them.
Whenever someone like Marcus Aurelius or Dostoevsky sat down to write, they brought with them their state of accumulated being up until that exact point in their life before they put pen to paper. And when they did put pen to paper, their words may have been projected as statements and opinions and facts or stories and characters and conflicts, but the source of the words were memories and experiences; memories and experiences that millions of people throughout history related to in some way before they could absorb them as new insights themselves. It’s this conversation that enables a connection, and it’s this connection that provokes a different way of seeing things.
People often think that they read to learn new things. And in a way, they do. But there’s another way to see it: People read to understand what their own experience has already confirmed to them but what they haven’t yet been able to put into words in a way that somebody else’s writing has. True, there are some facts found in various fiction and non-fiction mediums that seemingly stand outside of a person’s direct experience and still manage to make an impression, but if we explore this with more nuance, the only reason they get absorbed is, again, because on a deeper level, something in their own reality has made them ready to be impressed by such a fact.
Reading isn’t just a means-to-an-end rational activity, but more so, it’s an emotional experience that we share with somebody else. Word by word, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, we uncover layers — layers to both ourselves and other people, both to our immediate reality and to that of the larger world surrounding us. And to get the most out of it, we have to do more than just whisper words in our mind — we have to connect with the deeper source.
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