Someone once asked the great short story writer Jorge Luis Borges “Don’t you regret spending more of your life reading than living?”
“There are many ways of living, and reading is one of them… When you are reading, you are living, and when you are dreaming, you are living also.”
What does Borges mean? Isn’t living, well, living?
Isn’t living about misty morning runs at the park, beers with friends, picking the lint out of your belly button… You know, real things?
Well, as it is with love and hate, the border between reality and fiction is not as clear as we think.
In The Hall of Uselessness, Sinologist and essayist Simos Leys comments:
“Looking back into your own past, among the landmarks of your life, you will find that great readings occupy a place no less significant than actual happenings — for instance, a long and adventurous journey through strange lands, which you undertook in a certain year, may in retrospect appear no less memorable than your first exploration of A la recherche du temps perdu; or again, you might realize that your encounter with Anna Karenina, or with Julien Sorel proved more momentous than meeting most of your past acquaintances. Who is to assess the relative significance, the specific weight that should be ascribed to these diverse experiences in the shaping of your personality?”
Our memories are not so different from the stories we find in books.
In fact, our memories are stories. Like the writer that draws bold, red marks through the lines of his draft, we constantly update our memories — we erase the boring moments, color the lines with bits of drama, and, more often than not, we make ourselves into the heroes of adventures that exist solely in our minds.
As a teenager, I would often read novels in the parking lot of my school. One time, an older girl I did not know came up to me and said, “Why are you reading books? It’s a beautiful day. Go out live a little!”
Even as an adult, someone will occasionally tell me to put my books away and go live. Behind their words lies a hidden belief. Reading is not living, and every moment spent in a book is a life less well-lived.
But who I am today is not just the sum of moments in “real life.” Who I am is just as much about the books I read in those lazy, schoolyard afternoons and those wonderful stories, shards of living culture, gifted to me by parents, teachers and friends.
And here’s something else to think about — what if reading makes you live more?
When we step into the pages of a book, something happens.
We leave the borders of the self, and enter, for a few magical moments, into the minds of others, human, animal or otherwise. We do not just read about Dorothy’s trip to see the Wizard — we become Dorothy, red heels and all.
In her book Proust and the Squid, cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf describes this phenomenon of “passing over”:
“While reading, we can leave our own consciousness, and pass over into the consciousness of another person, another age, another culture. ‘Passing over,’ a term used by the theologian John Dunne, describes the process through which reading enables us to try on, identify with, and ultimately enter for a brief time the wholly different perspective of another person’s consciousness. When we pass over into how a knight thinks, how a slave feels, how a heroine behaves, and how an evildoer can regret or deny wrongdoing, we never come back quite the same; sometimes we’re inspired, sometimes saddened, but we are always enriched. Through this exposure we learn both the commonality and the uniqueness of our own thoughts — that we are individuals, but not alone.”
Although the stacks of novels I read in my youth served no “purpose” (I simply could not stop reading them), they had a certain effect. I learned to see things not just as I saw them, but as others saw them too.
Unknowingly, I had learned to empathize.
C. S. Lewis puts it best in his An Experiment in Criticism:
“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom realize the enormous extension of our being that we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense, but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. My own eyes are not enough for me. …in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad of eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
The cat has nine lives, but, as a boy who read, I guess I had a thousand.