Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, March 15, 2010

"the best moments in reading"

At the bookstore of the National Theatre in London you can pick up a bookmark that features these sentences:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.

These words are spoken by Hector in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, and they’re strong words — fitting for a bookstore’s calling card. But are they true? Are the experiences of having your own thoughts echoed by another really “the best moments in reading”?

I’m not so sure. There’s a great deal to be said for what happens when you come across something quite alien to your beliefs, or your experience, and find yourself transfixed by the strangeness itself. Then, as you read, as you enter more fully into the fictional or poetic world, you discover more connections and commonalities with what you already know — you recognize that there really is such a thing as “human experience,” though you never lose sight of the dramatically different forms that experience can take across time, across cultures.

I’ve had these powerful simultaneous feelings of connection and difference often as a reader, sometimes through reading ancient texts (the Oresteia, say, or The Bacchae), sometimes through reading texts from other cultures (Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, one of my very favorite books), and sometimes through reading books by people whose cultural situation is very close to my own but whose basic sensibilities are alien to me: this has been happening to me recently as I’ve been reading Iain Sinclair. For me, it’s encountering the strange, the different, and yet the fully human that is the best thing about reading.


  • I would say it is the opposite. When a book shows me an idea that I would have never dreamed up on my own, or gives words to some idea that I have not been able to express, that is when reading is the best.

  • I was going to say what Adam said. The best moments are when you read something so profound in its originality and creativity, so unlike anything you've thought of before that you set the book aside and for a minute or an hour or a day you can merely think and ponder what it said. I'm not saying it happens often, but it does sometimes.

    Which isn't to say I don't understand the sentiment in the quote. I think the two authors with whom I get that feeling most often are CS Lewis and Leo Tolstoy, and I love them both for it.

  • I don't think these are necessarily conflicting ideas (though you weren't really indicating they are). I know exactly what Bennett is talking about. I have these moments again and again when I read Walker Percy or David Foster Wallace, and they're enlivening and invigorating (as well as a little depressing when I realize that not only has the point already been articulated but likely better than I ever could).

    At the same time, getting drawn into a world very different from one's own is one of the essential lures of fiction. I don't read Percy for that. It's what draws children into becoming lifelong readers. And I think the idea that there's something wrong or inferior about it is what drives many voracious young readers away from ever becoming what some high-culturists would call "literary" readers. (That was very nearly my experience, anyway.)

  • Good way of looking at it, Ajay. The simultaneous connection-with-a-difference is where I too get little pleasurable epiphanies. It's not "the writer agrees with me" sort of response, which would be a kind of self-congratulatory personal validation. Rather it's more like "here's another take on something I've thought that's quite familiar - does the writer's perspective or experience or era during which he was writing enrich or reinforce or shift how I think about it?"

    But then, that combination of "familiar" and "different" is what I most value about travel. I learn more about myself and my home and culture, enrich my own "domestic" experience, by experiencing other places and people that are distinctively different, foreign, but not strikingly alien.

  • Michael Straight said...

    I agree with everyone about the wonder of finding strangeness in reading, but another thing I really like is finding a familiar idea in a surprising place. Particularly when I read something a few hundred (or many hundred) years old and find an idea I had thought was very recent and modern.

    Or when there's an idea I agree with in one author and then later find a very different author who seems to have arrived at a similar idea independently by another route. That always makes me feel like a scientist confirming an hypothesis with a successful experiment.

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