Friday, May 2, 2014

Why do I read?

There are droplets of water tracking the path of folded umbrellas around the room. I see all of this but I’m sitting on the ground anyway because in front of me is a stack of memoirs and political philosophy texts. It’s the basement — home to biography and comic books — of a used-book store. It’s probably a Saturday, probably early evening, and I’m probably clutching a book, wishing I could eat it. Literally, to open my mouth and tear a chunk, chewing the tough, inky paper hard. Alright, probably not literally, but close enough. I do want to devour all these books.

One of my bookshelves sags. Another bookshelf teeters. The books that don’t fit on the shelves are in my closet, where normal people might keep sweaters. Buying (and reading) books for me is more than a habit; it’s an almost financially ruinous compulsion. But I like to think that it keeps me sane; at least, I don’t want to know what my life would be without books.

Books, my dears, books are a soundproof room and half a Xanax and a chair, a comfortable chair that’s not too soft. To someone who doesn’t understand books like we do, books are a fine story, maybe an afternoon escape, a nice place to visit but nowhere that they’d want to live (I stole this image from a book, but I don’t remember which). But you and I know differently. I’ve seen you, indifferent to the smells of barbeque and the hum of families, you the book sniffers, the book gropers, you are reading and you look so heartbreakingly perfect that for a moment I’m in love with you.

Of ideas embalmed in books, Joyce wrote in Ulysses, “They are still. Once quick in the brains of men. Still: but an itch of death is in them, to tell me in my ear a maudlin tale, urge me to wreak their will.” The vitality, the urgency, of reading books is hard to comprehend for an uninterested observer. Except maybe a neuroscientist who’s got your head in an MRI, and there your brain explodes in colors on her screen and she knows that reading isn’t the humble, passive activity it looks to be.

Many of the books I read now aren’t novels, although several novels have, excuse my hyperbole, radically changed my life. It started normally enough, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, most of us didn’t know enough to groan. Have you ever read words on a page and wondered through what sorcery the author was able to reach into your psyche, take all the messy thoughts you had previously believed were unique to yourself, and then to lay them casually on the paper? At 15, it seemed like a miracle.

Joyce has, I think, in Portrait written one of the greatest YA novels of the 20th century. “It wounded him to think that he would never be but a shy guest at the feast of the world’s culture,” Stephen Dedalus thinks, as he’s turning the pages of Horace, struggling with the Latin, summing up nearly all of our insecurities. And where Joyce was the beginning of a new kind of reading, the sort that energizes, more than a hundred books have followed, some enraging, a few enlightening, fewer still life-changing.

There’s a little bit of intellectualism in my reading, of course. But if intellectualism — or even feigned intellectualism — were my only aim, there are better things to read than books. Like, maybe book reviews, or Wikipedia articles, learning just enough to sound learned. But books are long and take time to read and few people want to talk about books as they deserve to be talked about. What makes us continue to hunger for these books, salivating as we touch the spines?

I read because one world is not enough for me. I don't want to live in a bubble(like most of you think), I am as close to reality as you, even closer maybe. Reading becomes an outlet. To each his own I say, for you it might be smoking, drinking or an adrenaline rush, an adventure, for me it is my books. I escape and stay there, that doesn't make me oblivious it just keeps me sane enough to deal with whatever it is that I'm running away from. I read for knowledge. To fall in love. To learn. To unlearn. To gain perspective. To create an opinion. There is a humongous list. But for now, I read so that I don’t die: As long as there’s a book to finish, I feel immortal. 
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1 comment:

  1. I guess that's why we all read. We read to live a life that's not ours. To absorb a though that originates elsewhere.

    We read to escape. We read to learn. Perhaps we read to rethink, understand.

    We read to dream a dream painted well, vivid and rich.

    But most of all - we read for the happiness it brings us.

    Excellently worded, paced and ideated post.


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