Friday, August 01, 2008



Twice in the past few weeks, someone has confided to me: "I am a reader."

Both times I was in an environment which, at first blush, didn't really have or promote a lot of books. I'm never surprised when someone in New York city tells me that he is a reader, for example. At the risk of sounding cynical, New Yorkers read a lot--so much so that I sometimes wonder how sincere the desire is, or if it isn't just another kind of conformity.

But back to the two readers. There was a gravitas to the way they told me about their reading. Both read only because they really, really wanted to and because they enjoyed the process. One was seeking knowledge. The other liked the solitary act of entertaining, strengthening and toying with her mind. It would be an exaggeration to say that both confessions were just that--confessions--and yet they held that kind of personal and intimate weight. I thought about periods in history when it would have been an act of faith to say to someone: "I am a Jew" or "I am a Christian." And because we weren't in a place where people read all the time, it moved me to hear them talk about their books. I couldn't help but feel that theirs was a very pure and very real love of books.

Later on, I re-met a childhood friend who is on an intensely personal and spiritual quest of his own; he will be ordained next year. Our conversation plunged into a feverish discussion of books. We traded. I gave him Karen Armstrong's "Battle for God" and my well loved copy of "The Great Transformation." He responded with his own well loved titles. And then I pulled out Erich Neumann's "Amor and Psyche" and told him that while I wanted to lend it to him, I just couldn't because it was my father's copy and had too many of his little notes on the pages. His eyes lit up.

"That's a famous book."

It is? I mean, Gone with the Wind is famous. Winnie the Pooh is famous. Amor and Psyche? Famous? And then it dawned on me that among people who are seeking spiritual knowledge, even in these very material times, the book must be famous and that any hard-core questing reader would stumble across it in references. And once again, I felt happy to be in the company of secret and silent readers, trying to open their minds. Again, I thought how wonderful it is to know people moved by the pure desire of trying to understand something. Perhaps writing isn't so worthless after all.

I used to buy every copy of John Steinbeck's "Cannery Row" that I found in used bookstores just to have one to give away when I met someone who had never read it before. I may pick up "Amor and Psyche" in the future for the same purpose. You never know when you will meet someone with whom you feel the need to suddenly share a book. It doesn't happen all that often, but how wonderful when it does.

i sometimes worry that my reading is an act of conformity.

however, i am, as you know, kind of body-and-soul committed to it at this point. so i'm not sure it even matters anymore why i read.

it's always a relief, though, to hear about the "real" readers, and to be reminded they do exist. i love them.
I would never accuse you of reading out of conformity. You really love books and get so excited when you find a new one that resonates with you.

But it is true that it is fun to leave New York and to meet "real" readers. It reminds me, anyway, of how I fell in love with reading as a child in the first place.
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