“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” – Joyce Carol Oates
Reading is often portrayed as a solitary and isolating activity—one that we partake in with the main intention of escaping our respective realities. The notion of intimately engaging with a fictional tale conjures up the image of an individual locking themselves away in their bedroom, taking their phone off the hook, and shutting out the rest of the world in order to indulge in the pleasures of the text. While there exists an element of truth to this assertion, it largely fails to account for the unique ability of reading to inspire connections that transcend historical, geographical, and material boundaries. Far from being a pastime that separates us from the world, perhaps we ought to reimagine reading as a collection of moments of convergence—between reader and author, reader and literary characters, and among a wide and diverse body of readers themselves.
Perhaps the deepest and most honest relationships forged through the act of reading are those we develop with the human beings that exist within the many stories we hold dear—the Elizabeth Bennets, Oliver Twists, and Holden Caulfields of the fictional realm that capture our hearts and evoke our deepest sympathies. In a recent essay for The New Yorker entitled “The History of ‘Loving’ to Read,” Joshua Rothman notes that such emotional connections are the most vital and valuable aspect of reading, and that feelings of identification with literary characters are a big reason why we are drawn to fiction in the first place. Indeed, something that separates a “good” novel from a “great” one is the ability of the author to convince readers to wholly invest in the lives of the text’s characters—causing us to feel for, with, and along with them as they proceed along on their various journeys.
Our hearts break when the protagonist of Anna Karenina, unable to bear her lack of social freedom, throws herself into the path of an oncoming train. We grin from ear to ear as Rosalind and Orlando are finally reunited at the conclusion of As You Like It. We ache at the precise moment in Mrs. Dalloway when the eccentric yet oddly lovable Septimus Smith kills himself in a final act of defiance against authority. Rather than cut us off from society, reading encourages us to see the latter in a new light by bringing us into moments of intense convergence with those who are, more often than not, unlike ourselves. These relationships—which seamlessly transcend the materiality of the text—broaden our sympathetic capacities, allowing us to approach our real world connections with a heightened sense of awareness, consideration, and perhaps even kindness.
Reading also functions as an ideal avenue through which we can create human connections in our everyday lives. While perusing a work of literature may begin as a solitary activity, there are abundant communities rooted in the act of storytelling and literary engagement—book clubs, online forums, and discussion groups—that readers can readily access. Additionally, there are few things more exhilarating than striking up a conversation with a stranger after you notice them pouring over the same mottled edition of White Noise that rests on your bedside table. Books thus function as linking devices that help to initiate moments of genuine human convergence. Such substantial, tangible relationships borne out of reading are powerful stuff—they transcend cultures and countries, persisting as precious and salient moments of connection that seem increasingly harder to come by in today’s digital age.
Above all, when we are drawn into a work of fiction, we enter into a readerly tradition that dates back to the author’s initial inspiration for penning the work. As we interact with literature, we draw links with all who have had contact with and been touched by the text in its various iterations—a web of minds harnessed by literature and bonded by language. Indeed, the act of reading, at its core, is an exercise that encourages solitary searching, collective wandering, and allows us to forge new relationships that can enrich our perspectives and enlarge our beings.
Commissioned by The Førager for The Convergence Collection