For 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?
(with a Foreword by Jennifer Byrne)
Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2016