Reading & Reality

In the 1996 Boyer Lecture (a lecture series given each year by prominent Australians) Pierre Ryckmans discusses several aspects of the reading experience. Concerning the question on how literature can change a person’s life, Ryckmans comments:

Earlier on I made the point that no book in particular can actually affect your life, except in a ludicrously limited sense. Having said that, I must now hasten to add if individual books have no such power, what can most certainly transform your life is the very experience of reading itself.

As I think back upon my own experience, I can’t think of any single book that has changed the course of my life. Some have been more influential than others and have led to a line of inquiry that guided my research for a while or motivated me to read other books written by the author.

But it was a collection of books that greatly influenced the course of my life. In the days when I was a freshman in college every student took a full-year course in the history of Western Civilization and then often followed it with another in the Humanities that was devoted to literature and the arts. Those courses and the books I read for them introduced me to the world of academic scholarship and I've never recovered from the experience or found an alternative that comes close.

In this case it wasn’t any particular book that had this effect. Rather it was the more general effects of the reading experiences themselves, their subject matter, and mode of analysis that so strongly influenced me.

Perhaps your experience has been different. Many individuals have reported a particular book, read at a crucial time in their life, did deeply influence them. If that is true for you, I’d very much enjoy hearing about it if. Rychmans also notes:

Looking back into your own past along the landmarks of your life, you will find that great readings occupy a place no less significant than actual happenings. For instance, a long and adventurous journey through strange lands which you undertook in a certain year may in retrospect appear no less memorable than your first exploration of A la recherche du temps perdu, or again you might realise that your encounter with Anna Karenina or with Julien Sorrell proved more momentous than meeting most of your past acquaintances.

My literary friends are as real to me as any of my actual friends. They are individuals who I never seem to come across in my ordinary life, people who I would like to know and talk to with a while. It is a treat to know them. They are always there, ready to take up where we last left off, full of sparkling wit and thoughtful commentary. Moreover, I probably know some of my fictional friends better than my real ones. In How to Read and Why Harold Bloom wrote that one of the reasons we read is “Because you can know, intimately only a very few people, and perhaps you never know them at all. After reading The Magic Mountain you know Hans Castorp thoroughly, and he is greatly worth knowing.”

Does this bespeak of some kind of malady? Is it crazy to think that your reading experiences are just as real as your actual encounters? I don’t think so. Others have put it much the same way. In So Many Books, So Little Time, Sara Nelson writes:

I talk about my books as if they were people, and I choose them the way I choose my friends; because somebody nice introduced us, because I like their looks, because the best of them turn out to be smart and funny and both surprising and inevitable at the same time.

And Proust is said to have compared friendship to reading, because both activities involved communion with others. He also noted that reading had a key advantage:

In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its original purity. There is no false amiability with books. If we spend the evening with these friends, it is because we genuinely want to.

I thank Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence for alerting me to Ryckman’s lecture.