Reading: Why We Like to Read

by Alison on March 20, 2012

For years, I’ve been penning an email in my head to Lauren Winner, an email I’ll never send. I had put the email away for the space of several years but yesterday it was back, waiting patiently for me. At the time, I was riding the J train to work, one of my favorite $2 thrills in the city, thanks to views out the window that look like this and the long uninterrupted stretch of time that I can give over to reading without any guilt.

Lauren’s new memoir Still tackles the difficult years after her mother dies and her marriage falls apart and I am loving every page, nodding right along. She is making all sorts of thought-provoking theological observations but what got my attention was a small observance about how superior the hymns of the Baptist church are, especially when compared to the staid, organ-driven tunes of the Episcopal church.

Yes! I thought to myself. This is something I have always felt and never verbalized to anyone. And for a moment there on the train, I felt less alone.

It is not that I am alone. I have a wonderful circle of friends and family who claim to like me even on my bad days. It is more that by merit of me being Me and you being You, we are “other” to one another–and by extension to everyone we meet. And so when a person you have never met seems to be walking on the same peculiar path as you, coming to the same conclusions about the same old Baptist hymns, you feel less alone. This is why we so often describe a book as being like an old friend and why we can spend an afternoon reading and not feel isolated.

In fact, I would argue this is why we read and why writers wake up every day at 5:30AM to write. It’s that connection we crave, it’s the small relief from the dull ache of me being Me and you being You.

I suppose that’s why I want to write her an email. I almost feel as if I already know her, that perhaps we are cousins whose respective branches of the family tree grew apart. But I never will, even though we have had many similar experiences, even though we are roughly the same age, even though she is a friend of a friend (isn’t everyone these days?).

Why? Because I’m content with connecting with her via her words from halfway across the world. It’s the magic of the book and in many ways it’s more powerful and less messy than a real-life connection.

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