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21. Why Read?

Reading led me to this series and its most recent entry (20), with its suggestion of a novel use for the marrow. Now that I have imagined an infant Augusta Pownall painstakingly pricking messages that would never be read into the skins of marrows, with that single-minded intensity of concentration that is largely confined to young children, I don’t care to contemplate a life without that image.

Reading is synonymous with the imagination, but it often reminds me why reality is worth bothering with. It forces us to observe and consider, to look and listen, not just talk – everyone’s got stories to tell, and hearing them is how we learn to understand the world. Talking about reading is almost as important as reading itself because it gives us shared language and frames of reference, but above all helps us make sense of our lives and the people in them.

So reading anchors us; it also offers escape of course. Absorption in lives, times, worlds, stories and ideas which are not your own is a voyeuristic pleasure that will never lose its power. The second-skin thrill of reading can be found in a few other places, but never so easily or so endlessly. There is no such thing as diminishing returns here: you can always revisit favourite voices and worlds, but there will always be new ones to get lost in.

No other medium can match the bottomless variety of books: all tastes are catered for. Your access to experience is limited by social circle and a host of other factors; your access to books is unfettered. Everything we’ve done or thought is out there between two covers. Like the idea of hitting Vegas with a head full of uppers and a car full of melons but can’t afford the plane ticket? Hunter S. Thomson at your service. Unafraid of death but not sure why? Seneca is your man.

Books not only admit you to universes of new experience, you can use them to deflect experiences you’d rather not have. We have all been sat next to someone who turns slightly towards you at the start of a long journey, ready to reach across the gulf of loneliness and make a human connection. Ostentatiously opening Chapter 17 will soon shut them up.

I regularly appal friends and family with my sense of direction. I have only the vaguest, shadowy notion of where things are in places I’ve known all my life. Blame books. I had something more important than geography to do in my childhood; the way I orientate myself is never going to revolve around landmarks, compass points or maps. Reading has taught me how to think, how to talk and, now, how to tattoo messages on marrows for those who know where to look for them.

Harry Joll

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