I am still deep into my quest for creative inspiration. And if I may say, I am enjoying the quest so much, I am not certain I want it to end. Indeed, I set out nearly two weeks ago, in the hopes of revivifying my poetry, to explore the world of Steampunk. Which has turned out to be tremendous fun and which has now—rather interestingly and unexpectedly—rekindled my long-time interest in Golden Age detective fiction: Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, and company. I find myself reading voraciously these days, moving back and forth between gaslit London streets filled with otherworldly creatures and curious machines to the classic ‘whodunits’ of the post-war period: English country houses, seaside escapes, and quirky, quick-witted detectives.
This is one of those phases, it seems, in which I’d prefer to read rather than to write. The amount of effort it took to put down my current Agatha Christie novel and write this post was pretty extraordinary. (Agatha Christie books are and always have been addicting for me. You should see the current state of my Amazon shopping cart.) And so it occurred to me, as my personal reflections and creative endeavors on this blog so often emanate from my activities as a reader, that it might be worthwhile to write about reading itself. Not, perhaps, the most obvious benefits of reading, but reading as an activity that’s essential to living a vibrant, imaginative, and well-informed life. Reading as art. Here are some thoughts:
Reading teaches us who we are.
It’s not enough to suggest that reading, especially of the more contemplative variety, teaches us to know our own minds. To formulate and reflect on our opinions, accumulate knowledge, discern fact from fiction. Rather, I think reading has a more important function than that: it teaches us to know who we are. A phenomenon Lin Yutang describes perfectly in The Importance of Living, where he discusses the roles our favorite authors play in our personal development:
It is only this kind of reading, this discovery of one’s favorite author, that will do one any good at all…This author is not something that a young man need be told about by his teacher. The author is just right for him; his style, his taste, his point of view, his mode of thinking, are all right…The author has cast a spell over him, and he is glad to be under the spell, and in time, his own voice and manner and way of smiling and way of talking become like the author’s own. Thus he truly steeps himself in his literary lover and derives from these books sustenance for his soul. After a few years, the spell is over and he grows a little tired of this lover and seeks for new literary lovers, and after he has had three or four lovers and completely eaten them up, he emerges as an author himself. – Lin Yutang
I can’t imagine what my childhood would have been like if I hadn’t always had my face buried in a book. In fact, I cannot imagine I would be the person I am today if I had not had the literary love affairs I’ve had. Returning to Agatha Christie, now, after a 20+ year hiatus, feels akin to returning to an old and very, very dear friend. As if I’ve stepped back into a world I’d forgotten existed and remembered a part of myself that I’d forgotten was there. An aspect of my consciousness seems to awaken under the spell of those pages that I haven’t experienced in a long time. Something familiar and altogether wonderful. An odd thing to say? Maybe to some. But I imagine these are sentiments every reader can understand.
Reading gives us confidence.
There is something to be said for the opportunity to leave this world for awhile and enter a new one. To step away from the drudgeries of daily life and recall what it is to de-limit ourselves. Through reading, we become active participants in the creation of new worlds, new ideas and experiences, crossing barriers of time and space to forge new realities. Indeed, I imagine our views of self and world would be horrendously limited without ever having had these experiences as children. And as adults, I imagine it is equally important to maintain them. To keep ourselves from becoming immune to the magic within and around us. To keep alive a healthy sense of possibility, awe, and adventure. To keep us learning and questioning. Growing in our sense of self. Reading is the cornerstone of a confident and well-informed life.
It’s probably worth mentioning, though, that reading for purposes other than enjoyment doesn’t always pan out as expected. For example, whenever I select a book because I think it should be read because of its popularity, the author’s notoriety, or because it will make me seem well-read, I am nearly always met with failure. That is, I don’t enjoy the book. Most often, I don’t finish it. I find it’s always best to be lead by my tastes, interests, and intuition.
Reading cultivates charm and personality.
A point Lin Yutang makes very well, and I am so glad he does:
If a reader gets the flavor of books, he will show that flavor in his conversations, and if he has flavor in his conversations, he cannot also help having flavor in his writing. – Lin Yutang
Reading animates us. It makes us come alive in ways that are, perhaps, hard to define beyond a certain infusion of charm in our mannerisms. As for myself, I tend to feel a renewed sense of life when I’m in the throes of a literary love affair. I generally feel more engaged, more conversational, more lively. And it’s got nothing to do with the ability to talk about books. But simply the desire to engage with the world around me in a deeper, more holistic, and more creative way.
Now, I am happy to say, I’ve got to go make some books this evening. If you haven’t yet ordered a copy of my debut chapbook, Seven Road & Other Poems, you can find it in my Etsy shop. Each book is handmade to order and includes original, full-color artwork.