Image: Camille Pisarro, Jean Reading, 1899, Private Collection [Public Domain] via Wikiart
When we think about reading together, we often think about classrooms and about parents reading with their children when they are young – about the importance of fostering literacy early on, about modeling good reading practices. As we get older, shared reading and discussion becomes either less or more formalized. We find it sometimes in the evening book club. More frequently, book discussion becomes the domain of high school and college classrooms, where talking about books is a mark of intellectual progress.
When we delimit book discussion to the realm of the early reader or the intellectual, however, we miss out on literature’s real magic – the ability to transport readers across time and space. When we read, say, Hamlet, we create connections with the thousands or even millions of others who have come across Shakespeare’s play since it was first performed. We create shared memories. Shared feelings. Shared experiences.
I think about this sharing when I reflect on my own reading experiences and particularly my desire to foist favorite books on the people I care most about. I think about it, too, each December, when I make the 13-hour drive home to South Alabama, only to spend my limited time with my mother reading beside her, each of us buried in a book.Two years ago, we spent the week between Christmas day and New Year’s reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, along with my older sister, who was visiting at the same time. For days, we sat together, dead to the world outside our living room and immersed ourselves in fictional versions of New York City, Las Vegas, Amsterdam. We imagined the life of a young boy after his mother dies in a terrorist attack, following closely its twisting, Dickensian turns.
On breaks, we made tea and coffee for each other, chatting about where we were in the novel. I was, as usual, zipping through it. My mom, like so many of Tartt’s readers, got bogged down in the second half. My sister, reading ahead, cheered us on. We spoke of our frustrations with the main character, and of the novel’s implausibility. I had a bone to pick with the narrator, and we all touched on the scenes and interactions that resonated most with us.
We were hesitant to spoil the book for each other, so we didn’t delve into deep or complex conversations – we were all more inclined to just keep reading. The conversations, rather than acting as a mental exercise, were more like touchstones – moments in which we’d look up and connect the real world to the one we were collectively imagining.
In the end, none of us liked the book that much. But liking the book mattered less and less as we read on. We were impressed by the sense of having had a common experience that would otherwise have been closed to us. We took in an angle on the world that was not our own. Together, we were transported. So perhaps it’s not surprising that those hours curled tightly in front of the fire with a book, and a steaming mug, and my family, exist in my memory more clearly than any others that holiday season.
For better or worse, I can’t spend the entire year reading on my mom’s couch – I can’t even spend it in Alabama. But in the space between these too-short weeks, reading continues to act as a bond between us. We both like mystery novels; we’re avid readers of the Maisie Dobbs series as well as long time fans of Flavia de Luce. We anticipate forthcoming novels together. We share excitement over plot twists and revelations. Our lives are in many ways very different from one another – as people’s lives in different stages and places inevitably are. But our reading habits sustain our commonalities and offer us places to explore differences. What’s more, when we read outside of our comfort zones together, as we did with The Goldfinch, we grow together.
We all lead busy lives that seem to get more frenetic by the year. We all become mired in our own perspectives. I, at least, worry about becoming like Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, who is unable to see past the end of his nose. And so I rely on good stories to help me see out and in – to gain perspective on others and on myself. To connect me to others and sustain me.