Why do we read? Beyond practical or educational purposes we read at times to escape, or to remember, or to be connected to others and feel a part of something larger. I’ll not try to name all the reasons we read because I’ll leave out something important to some others.
I read in part to be surprised by the magical thought, or sentence or phrase, that captures something unique or beautiful or profound. Sometimes it arrives in the content of the words and sometimes simply in the way a writer puts together words to describe or remind us of a universal truth.
I found just such a sentence in Alexander Chee’s novel The Queen of the Night. A young girl spoke to herself–and to the reader–the following: “My family had been the borders of my world before then, and with them gone, the world had revealed itself to me.”
The character’s thoughts were given clearly within the context of her experience in the novel, but beyond that, does that sentence not describe us all? Whether it is the original wall put up by our parents, or boundaries we have created by our choices of relationships, we are thus contained and defined. When we lose someone, for worse or sometimes better, a different world is revealed to us.
This is why I read, to find and to reflect on just such things. Another favorite: David Foster Wallace wrote “the truth will set you free, but not until it is finished with you.” Who has not experienced the intrusive discomfort of finding out the truth about something or someone? And are we not the better for it?
Another all time favorite: Lord Byron’s final lines in The Prisoner of Chillon, describing the reaction of a man set lose after a long confinement: “my very chains and I grew friends, so much a long communion tends to make us what we are, even I regained my freedom with a sigh.”
I feel an inherent optimism and hope in the quotes above. It fits with a relatively new concept in the world of psychology, called “positive psychology.” Part of it goes like this: you are what you think and you can become what you do, not the other way around. You can choose to involve yourself in positive actions and direct your thoughts toward hopeful outcomes and thus grow and change.
Could we also say this in another way? You are what you read.