The Meaning of Reading

In Nicole Krauss’ novel Great House, the character Nadia, a novelist, is asked a question which she interprets to mean “Do you actually think anything you write could mean anything to anyone?”

She responds with a “thought experiment” in which she asks the questioner to “imagine the sort of person he might be if all the literature he’d read in his life were somehow excised from his mind and soul.”  Contemplating this “nuclear winter” of the intellect does give one pause.  Would I be different if I’d never had the experience entering the lives of all the characters in all the books I’ve read during the course of my life?

Oh yes, I certainly would.

Being a reader has given me a much broader awareness of the human condition at every age and every stage.  I understand myself and my world through the eyes of the writers I love, and even the ones I loathe.  Nearly every time I read a book, I meet myself somewhere in it, and then feel less alone.

Now tell me, would you be different if everything you’d ever read was removed from your mind and soul?


14 thoughts on “The Meaning of Reading

  1. So true: “We read to know that we’re not alone”… From the movie Shadowlands, about C.S. Lewis and Joy Grisham. Would you recommend NK highly? I’ve just finished her husband’s work Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and feel its poignancy but may be a bit too avant garde for me.

    • I loved that movie…you’ve made me want to rent it and watch it again.
      This was the first Nicole Krauss book I’ve read. It was very intelligently written, and took me a while to settle into, but I enjoyed it very much.

  2. Would I be a different person without literature? Definitely! I’m afraid I would be a mean and selfish woman were it not for the insight on human emotions found in good books. Without a shadow of a doubt, I would be a very lonely woman. Many years as an Army wife I have spent with my dearest friend else where. Characters created by beloved authors have kept me company, mostly sane, and taught me the intricacies of what drives other humans to behave as they do. The first commenter pegged it: “the shell of a human” and not a pretty conch shell which echoes the ocean.
    Great question!

    • Aimee, thanks for your very pertinent comment. I love this part.. “Characters created by beloved authors have kept me company and mostly sane…” I know that feeling well!

  3. I simply can’t imagine myself without all the books I’ve read living inside me. I know I would be an entirely different person. It’s unfathomable.

  4. Oh definitely, yes. I’m reminded of a passage I just read from Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night: “Books are transformed by the sequence in which they are read. Don Quixote read after Kim and Don Quixote read after Huckleberry Finn are two different books, both coloured by the reader’s experience of journeys, friendship and adventures. Each of these kaleidoscope volumes never ceases to change; each new reading lends it yet another twist, a different pattern..”

  5. I’m sure I’d be different: much flatter. I think I’d be less resilient to pain and hardships and less joyous during the good moments. I’d be unanchored, really.

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