I define myself as a reader. It’s one of the most important things, right up at the top of the list, when I think about who I actually am. About what shapes me as a person.
And I think the same is true of all readers, but I’m not sure if people who read ever really show how important it can be. And I’m even less sure why.
When I think of myself, I think of myself as a reader. But I also consider myself, out of the people I know, very, very rare. Nearly unique. I know of a few people who read, but only one or two readers.
And I don’t think that’s because there aren’t many readers, I think it’s because people don’t identify as such. To themselves, yes, but not to others. I think I am nearly unique in the same way they mistakenly believe they are nearly unique.
I know people know I read. I know they know I do it a lot. I don’t, however, think they actually know what that means. Not many. To most, I am a person that reads, not a reader.
There’s something deeply personal about reading. It opens you up and allows you to experience things in a different way, or experience new things in the same way, or a hodgepodge of everything, all at once. It lets you live someone else’s life – both the mundane and the spectacular. Sometimes, when I read a well-characterised book, I think I could read a book in which nothing happens. In the best books, you feel that nothing happens. You’re just sinking into someone else’s skin for a while. To them, to that character, nothing happens. There is no plot. It’s just their life. In a good book, it’s just their life.
So it’s personal. It’s not escapism, not like so many clichés would have you believe, it’s… a conversation. Between you and the author. You and every other reader you will never speak to. It starts trains of thought and opens pathways. It demands empathy for the characters, empathy for yourself. It causes perspective, and introspection, and I don’t know what else. It connects you to the whole world, everything in it. Everything thing that is happening, has happened, could happen.
And it’s too much to take in. Too much to even wrap your head around and quantify in your own head. FAR too much to verbalise. So you just say that you read. And you feel like you’ve done yourself a disservice, done the entire concept of literature a disservice, with that answer. And then they ask you what type of books you like to read. And you just want to cry. Or cry out that that’s a silly question, you can’t answer it, it doesn’t even matter. You can’t tell them it’s the wrong question. You don’t even know what the right question might be, only that they’re asking the wrong ones.
And so they leave the conversation thinking, “always weird, the ones who read. Never quite seem there when you’re asking them things.” And you leave the conversation knowing it, and wishing you had the words to make them understand.
Reading isn’t about the physical act of looking at words and understanding the meaning. It’s tied in deeply and personally with the writer, and the act of writing. It’s open to interpretation, but it meant something solid to its creator. It opens a direct link from writer to reader, “Do you understand what I want you to understand? Are you feeling how I am?” It’s about expanding your thought and feelings and understandings of all the slippery little concepts that you can’t pin down. And the wonderful thing is it does it without pinning them down itself. You can’t pin them down. That’s the whole point. All you can do is dance around the issue so elegantly that you can begin to see its shape. Let people know that they’re not alone in thinking the big things, the strange, indefinable things. The ticks you can’t even bring up because the vocabulary just doesn’t exist. And yet everyone is on the same page regardless. Reading is about philosophy, even when it isn’t. It’s about how we think, why we think, why we are. It’s about history, even when it isn’t. It’s a commentary on the present, even when it doesn’t seem to be. It passively betters you, and I don’t necessarily mean in an intelligence way. In a health way, in a well-being way. In a thinking way.
It shapes who I am, and in 700 words I still haven’t really been able to tell you why. And that, right there, IS why. Because I can’t talk about it, because I can’t even construct the means to think about it. A reader is all this, or more, or less, or different. And yet, to most people we’re just ‘people who read’, or else we don’t mention it at all. Because it’s so impossibly hard to work out what to say. To work out what it means.