On Reading Pleasures, and not being alone

Reading pleasuresFor my birthday last year, a friend who knows me well gave me a delightful little book titled Reading pleasures. I hadn’t planned to blog about it but, upon looking at it again this week, I changed my mind – mainly to share one idea that recurs in the book. First, though, some background. The book was published by the National Library of Australia in 2016, and is just one of many gorgeous books the Library publishes each year. It comprises quotes, mostly from writers, about reading, and each one is accompanied by a delightful image – photographs, paintings, drawings, cartoons – from the Library’s collection. The majority of quotes come from Australians, but there are other sources, including Haruki Mirakami and the Bible!

The book opens with a Forward written by Jennifer Byrne, an Australian journalist and, over the last decade, the host of ABC Television’s Book Club program. She writes that the book represents “a celebration – and examination – of the lifelong, earthly, impossible-to-explain love affair between readers and their books.” What she found, she says, when reading all the quotations, was how many different ways readers view reading. Some see at as private, a refuge, an escape, while others see it as the opposite, as providing company, as reassuring us that we are not alone. There are other views too, of course, such as those that apply social, moral and/or intellectual values to reading, but it is this issue of aloneness – or non-aloneness – that I want to share, because it’s a significant feature of my reading.

At least three of the quotes refer to this idea. Richard Flanagan describes his protagonist in The narrow road to the deep north (my review) visiting a bookshop. Dorrigo Evans “vaguely” browses the shelves looking for Virgil’s Aeneid, but, writes Flanagan,

It wasn’t really the great poem of antiquity that Dorrigo Evans wanted though, but the aura he felt around such books – an aura that both radiated outwards and took him inwards to another world that said to him that he was not alone.

Another quote comes from bibliotherapy advocate Susan McLaine who says:

Great writers tackle the mysteries of human personality and dark existential concerns. Reading them, we feel less alone.

And then Elliot Perlman (whose novel The street sweeper I’ve reviewed) writes:

A great writer can attach themselves to your mind and your heart, and you feel you understand the world better. As long as you have the capacity to read, you needn’t be alone anymore.

Jennifer Byrne says that she would once have “sided with the solo/escape faction”, that she had always seen reading as “a refuge”, but, through her ten years with her book program, she had discovered that reading can be a more “sociable” activity. As a book group member for thirty years myself, I enjoy this social aspect of reading – as well as the escape aspect – though for many of us, I’d say, it starts way before joining book clubs. It starts when books are read to us, and when we swap, lend and/or talk about books with our friends and family. This sociability aspect is conveyed through some of the illustrations in the book. Most, naturally, depict solo readers, but there are others that are more community-focused, such as four boys reading during a school health week (1930), a father reading with his daughter (1932), eight girls reading in an orphanage dormitory in New South Wales (1935), and, on the next page, a 1934 photo by Harold Cazneaux of some school girls at the exclusive Frensham School, reading, writing and drawing.

However, I see the relationship between reading and not being alone as accommodating more than this particular “sociability” aspect – and I think this other meaning is conveyed in the quotes I’ve shared. This meaning is about our deeper selves, about our discovering that our innermost thoughts and fears, loves and hates – including those we feel less proud of or just less certain of – are not ours alone. Through reading, we discover people who think, feel, suffer, act as we do. When we rail at, laugh at, grimace at, shout at and/or empathise with them, we are recognising them in ourselves and we feel – at least, I feel – less alone. I may or may not feel better about myself, but I feel more connected as a human, I feel that I am human. I might also, hopefully, take the opportunity to examine, privately, my feelings, ideas, actions and think about whether I might modify them (those I don’t like anyhow) in the future!

In other words, whether or not it brings me up with a start, shocking me with recognition, and whether it then reassures me that I’m okay or makes me want to better myself, it is this sense of not being alone which makes reading such a valuable, meaningful exercise for me.

What about you? Why do you read? Does the idea of  “not being alone” play any part in your reading pleasures?

Reading pleasures
(with a Foreword by Jennifer Byrne)
Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2016
ISBN: 9780642278968

49 thoughts on “On Reading Pleasures, and not being alone

  1. I’m a contented introvert, so it’s never bothered me to be alone and I need plenty of time on my own in order not to feel stressed. (Yes, teaching with wall-to-wall people all around is a strange occupation for an introvert, and how I love being retired!) But while there are (as you say) multiple other reasons for liking reading, it is indeed the sense of connection that the author generates that I value most…

    • I’m a borderline extrovert/introvert. Whenever I do those questionnaires I’m never at extremes – and it seems the older I get the more borderline I’m becoming – which is why I call myself wishy-washy! I wonder how many full-on extroverts are keen readers?

        • Oh but I love my bookgroup – it’s pretty much my top priority group, the one that I’ll do anything not to miss. And I know that some in the group identify as introverts. Some of us have been together for 30 years, and we’ve been through so much together – babyhood, playgroup, babysitting group, through to kids in high school, and onto their university years, overseas travel, weddings and babies. It’s a lifetime history of shared lives and books!

  2. Definitely finding that other people have the same kinds of thoughts and feelings is part of why I read. The other part, of course, is finding out how very different kinds of people think and feel.

  3. Hi Sue, the book sounds great. I like the process of bringing the characters and events together, and relating them to my memories or my imagination. I like the surprises when this happens. Reading is a good exercise in reflecting. I would be lonely without books.

    • Thanks Meg … I like that idea of relating them to your memories or imagination. I certainly agree that reading is a good exercise in reflecting, and I too would be lonely without books. You never feel alone when you have a book to read do you.

  4. I have received an invitation, sponsored by Transportation Press, I think, to attend a monthly reading night at a local cafe. One turns up at 6:30 with book , order a drink or food then find one of the comfy chairs and read quietly for 90 minutes. I don’t know if this is for me but an interesting concept. I tend to a high level of distractibility so might find another’s movement or throat clearing annoying. I prefer to read in silence and then get social afterwards.

    • I’ve heard about these events, Pam, but have never heard of one in my vicinity. I wonder how I’d go – because I know that when I go to a cafe by myself and read, I’m easily distracted. Perhaps though at one of these events one would become practised at it? Are you going to give it a try?

      • I am not sure. I have enough efenings out that to go out to read sounds like work. I like the silent comfort of my reading chair in front of an open window. The birds distract me enough. Somehow adding a group of strange people to the mix will depend on what mood I’m in.😎

        • Yes, for me too Pam, re people being around. I have a daybed on our verandah where I like to read but I can get distracted by the birds, and just by the loveliness of being there.

  5. I went to a similar event at my local library. It only went for an hour. There wasn’t any conversation but people did drink. After the time was up, everyone discussed their thoughts on the book they were reading. It was an okay event, and I learnt about other books and authors. If I were you I would give a go!

  6. I read to escape. Escape from the world and all its hustle and bustle, escape from my own realities and I take comfort in being a part of another realities, looking in. I do prefer to read alone. I was never a part of book clubs and things. I value that reading is my own private time where I take my own pace and I choose my own story.

    But great post. That book sounds interesting and definitely strikes up a lot of thoughts in my head about why reading is so important to me!

    • Thanks Lee Sam, and welcome. Lovely to have your input. I’m not an escapist at all in the sense of escaping this world and its hustle and bustle. I do find reading an escape of course, but not so much as escape “from” a world as “into” a world, and I’m very happy for that world to be the real one. I’m glad sharing an idea from this book is encouraging people to think about why they read and to share their thoughts with the rest of us.

    • Ah, that’s an interesting distinction Meg. I love it. It’s all partly to do with what we mean by “escape” isn’t it? You’ve made me realise that my way of escaping the hustle and bustle is to do yoga. Running is far too energetic for me!!

  7. Reading definitely makes me feel less alone, especially classics. Not only do I feel connected to the countless people who are still reading them now, but I also feel connected to all that have read them before me.
    Love this post! ❤

  8. I think you ask an important question, why do we read? But despite the fact I read every minute I am awake and not moving, I’m not sure I have an answer – maybe just to keep.my brain ticking over. I would rather read hard books than easy books, I would rather read literature than non-fiction, and I would rather read trash than nothing at all.

    • Good answer Bill. Perhaps you could add, you’d rather read the Cornflakes packet than nothing at all!! But really, when you put it the way you do here, I start to wonder whether I have a fundamental reason too – it’s like why we read is that we’re driven to do so, so then the follow-up question is why we read what we read?

  9. This is fantastic post. It has gotten me to thinking about reading, why people read nd why I read. I think that reading is such a diverse experience and that all of the “factions” may be right. Throughout my life I have read for a lot of different reasons. With that, I tend to mostly read to help me understand others. I also agree that some of it is about discovering things about myself.

    • I can’t remember a time when I went very long without a book on the go- although I occasionally get a reading drought when I can’t seem to find the right book. I never feel alone when I’m reading something I like and that reader/writer interaction still seems marvellously rich and complex to me!

      • Yes, I understand the reading drought too Ian, but as you say it’s never about not reading but feeling unsettled for some reason about what to read. That rrader/writer interaction is really important for me too. I love it when I can sense the writer talking to me rather than “just” telling a story, if that makes sense.

  10. What a fun post WG. I am an introvert who often makes ‘friends’ with characters. I can have conversations with them and learn things about the world. I don’t have to dress up to spend time with these friends. I can drink all the wine and eat all the cheese and when I get tired I can just shut them up and go to sleep.

  11. From my earliest memories I’ve always thought of reading as an escape from the real world. I note that my tastes in books from early on verged toward the more fantastic side of literature, readily embracing science fiction, fantasy and magic realism. These days I particularly enjoy great prose stylists like David Mitchell, William Gibson, John Crowley, to name a few. It’s no surprise that the aforementioned authors lean towards the fantastic.

    Being basically an introvert, I enjoy solitude and don’t regard reading as a way to feel less alone, just a way to enjoyably pass time while commuting or staving off boredom.

    • Thanks Anne – I like what you say about escaping. I think you’re right that those people who want to escape in that pure sense like to read Fantasy and Sci Fi. And interesting that as you’ve got older you still like that but you also want it done with style!

      I love the ‘staving off boredom’ comment. Perhaps extroverts stave off boredom by catching up with friends while introverts do it by reading and other individual activities like crafts?

  12. I’m not into crafts, though before the internet and computers I amused myself with knitting, embroidery and such. It’s more a matter of keeping the mind occupied whilst waiting in doctors and dentists rooms, where the Kindle always comes in handy and is a more attractive alternative to the magazines on offer.

    Retirement is a challenge in terms of killing time if you’re not overly sociable, but I fill it by various diversions one of which is playing computer games – the puzzle solving type and not action adventures. Even with computer games, I like a good involving story.

    • That’s interesting Anne about retirement. As a borderline extrovert I have no challenge filling my retirement time, and in fact find too little time to read, as I like to keep up with people, and somehow have become the organiser or de-facto convenor of various groups (both formal and informal) that I’m in. It all takes up a lot of time. I’ve barely increased my reading quantity since I retired.

      And you’re right about doctors and dentists rooms, I find that with my devices I never these days seem to read the magazines. I’m so behind on celebrity gossip!

  13. The idea that through reading you appreciate there are others who have similar problems, issues, etc is an important one for children and young people. As a child though I didn’t have a troubled time by any stretch of the imagination, reading helped me understand how to relate to other children (I was an only child) because I saw in these books how people made friends and what they did together.

  14. I think that discovering that we’re not alone in what we feel or think helps us connect with others and it’s also very reassuring. So yes, I share this view of reading to feel less alone with my innermost thoughts. It’s comforting to see that someone else might have experienced them and more importantly put words on it.

    I enjoy this quote about reading:

    “Books are the most amazing objects, aren’t they ?”

    He looked puzzled, she realized, by the banality of this observation.

    “I mean, because they’re lumpish objects, they have a physical existence, like we do. But any single book is the instantiation of a kind of Platonic form, the ideal, the creation of an author, which exists independent of the physical object. And here they sit on the shelf : the ideal’s latent until we pick it up and connect ourselves with the mind of a man or a woman who may be long dead. And, in the case of a novel, with a world that never actually existed”

    The Good Life by Jay McInerney

    • Great quote Emma,thanks for sharing it. It’s fascinating how many writers have their characters discuss reading, or discuss their characters’ reading habits, and he’s still say it differently.

  15. What a wonderful post. And I love everyone’s comments, too. One of the reasons I read is because books give me something to think about beyond the mundane routine of everyday life. But it also makes me feel good about that life. I love coming across characters that reflect my own experiences – they definitely make me feel less alone. But I also love reading about characters who couldn’t be more different than I am. I read books to challenge myself, to discuss with others, and as a means of escape. It’s kind of amazing when you think about it that books can do all these things for us at the same time. 🙂

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