Through lit-tinged lenses

The act of reading
Last Updated 16 January 2010, 10:13 IST

Stories spread themselves slowly through the territories of our experience and seed ideas that grow privately, organically, over many years. But there’s a public aspect to reading, too — most notably the conversations we share with other readers. For many people, reading is a social event as well as a private practice.

Which leads one to wonder about the place of reading in our most intimate relationships. What difference does it make in a relationship if both partners are notorious readers, or if one partner reads voraciously while the other has no interest in literature? Does “must love books” represent a categorical imperative, an optional extra or a quality of no consequence in a book lover’s search for an ideal partner?

As a young adult, I thought the best woman for me was the one who most accurately reflected my own interests. My ideal woman loved all the things I loved and hated all the things that I hated. As I grew older, though, my ideals changed, and for the past eight years I’ve been in a relationship with a woman who does not read literature at all. She is intelligent, compassionate, funny and very strong, but she’s read just one work of fiction in eight years (White Teeth, which I gave her last summer).

I occasionally miss not being able to discuss books, but it doesn’t bother me as I once thought it would, and this has made me wonder: what did I think were the hypothetical ball-park benefits of having a partner who read books? And how were these perceived benefits qualified by some wider reality?

Firstly, I suppose, reading literature offers a couple a shared passion: something that connects them, even when they have differing opinions about the same author or book, and offers them a chance to compare and widen their learning. Reading literature can also give humans a stronger understanding of and empathy for others. As Atticus Finch tells his daughter Scout, you can never really understand people until you step inside their shoes. Great literature gives us the power to imagine what the world is like for people whose lives are vastly different from our own: it can challenge our prejudices and, if we’re lucky, make us a little wiser, offering us a deeper understanding of what it sometimes means to be a living, individual human being.

On the other hand, there’s ample evidence that voracious readers aren’t always wise or empathetic characters. Hitler’s library contained more than 16,000 volumes. Perhaps they were simply acquired and shelved to make an impression, given that his frequent expressions of megalomaniacal evil did not suggest the character of a quiet, settled, empathetic reader. Much has been made of Hitler’s inappropriate appropriation of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but I feel quite certain that if Hitler read Nietzsche at all, he must have skimmed over all the important bits.

Hitler is, of course, an extreme example — but fanatical readers with less fanatical persuasions can still be quite difficult to handle. Lovers of literature might feel tremendous empathy for humanity, but they don’t always like other people very much.
Literature doesn’t produce happy endings with the regularity of the Hollywood dream factory because reality is, for so many of us, filled with pain and suffering. Perhaps, as a consequence, readers are less inclined to gloss over life’s painful realities, and suffer for it; they can become slightly bruised, cynical and worldly-wise.

I do believe that people who read a lot are able to articulate their feelings with greater clarity. They have richer vocabularies and can adopt the ideas and expressions of great writers for themselves. Adults mimic, just as kids do, only in more complex ways: we all try to understand emotions through the cracked kettle of language, but it’s a mug’s game, by and large, because nobody really understands emotions in a rational sense.
When someone else uses words to describe emotions in a way that seems to illuminate a powerful truth about our existence, therefore, we tend to store up their words for future use; the quality of the expressions we borrow depends on the quality of the stories we consume, or the people we listen to. The people I know who are most expressive, exact, and interesting when talking about their feelings or the feelings of others, for example, are almost all great readers.

But then, love isn’t really about how well we can illuminate our feelings with words, is it? If it were, Humbert Humbert would be universally held up as a lover par excellence. If you’re a keen reader I’m sure it’s wonderful to have a literature-loving partner, but things like honesty, integrity and trust are surely more important in a relationship, are they not?

(Published 16 January 2010, 10:12 IST)

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