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19. Why Read?

Other people always say things better than you, and like most life truths this is a sort of good points/bad points deal. The good points are mainly related to The Immortal Beauty of Literature. Bad points include: Difficulty Winning Arguments, Takes Ages to Write an Email and Embarrassing Quality of Diary Entries. Language tends to act rough with lay users like you and me so when someone gets the knack it’s certainly a comfort to hear from them. Even coming at second hand, moments of articulacy feel like moments of ownership, as though you could have anything you wanted, appropriately categorised and filed inside your head. I don’t know why some sentences should seem so fist-pumpingly right but I’m too pleased about the whole business to start asking questions. I’ve always thought that being a reader feels a bit like having a blank cheque in a secret bank vault. Maybe it feels even better. Either way, it makes me feel considerably less sweaty about life than I otherwise would.

Still, I’m sometimes nervous about the unfailingly good press enjoyed by readers. I don’t really think of my reading self as my purer self and tend to feel short-changed by accounts that only acknowledge the wholesome bits. Undeniably vitamin-rich though it is, I’ve always taken comfort in the fact that books also offer plenty of satisfactions that are vacuous, mean-spirited or at least reassuringly selfish. E.g. many prove to be excellent resources for thinking up unkind things to say about your friends. Famously, books have the ability to make you feel a little more at home in your own head; they name things you knew but didn’t know the names of and sort of draw your attention to bits of furniture you already had knocking about up there. They put their arms around your shoulders and say “I think you’ll find that this is how you feel”. This clearer or maybe deeper access to your own experiences can (I’m told) inspire all manner of noble deeds, but is also an unparalleled narcissistic high. It’s a bit like being given yourself as a gift, or like jumping out of your own birthday cake (SURPRISE!).

Naturally when I am in a good mood I like to think about how reading makes me a totally stand-up gal by way of opening up whole worlds of empathy, understanding etc etc. And when I am feeling more glass-half-empty, I think that reading doesn’t make me more interested in other people at all, it just soups up my internal landscape, giving me the capacity to be of more interest to myself (which is nice but not necessarily virtuous). I suppose it works both ways really and I kind of enjoy the uncertainty. There’s something pleasingly private and non-committal about the way that reading straddles the selfless and the self-absorbed and something weirdly intimate about the fact that wanting to read isn’t quite the same as wanting to be good.

Isabel Blake

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