Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Splash du Jour: Tuesday

Reading fiction not only develops our imagination and creativity, it gives us the skills to be alone. It gives us the ability to feel empathy for people we've never met, living lives we couldn't possibly experience for ourselves, because the book puts us inside the character's skin.
-- Ann Patchett --

Have a great Tuesday!


Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, I never feel alone when I'm reading so I can't completely agree with what she says.

Cipriano said...

But that's just it, C, the way I see it.
She is not saying that reading makes you feel alone, she's suggesting that reading helps develop a person so that they in fact are capable of feeling less alone when they ARE alone.

Anonymous said...

Ok so here's what I mean: if I read to distract myself from the fact that I am alone then reading doesn't help me to learn to deal with being alone. When you forget that you are alone altogether then you're not learning to be alone per se, you're learning to keep yourself occupied. When I'm reading, the characters are keeping me company so it's as if I'm with a group of people I'm learning to know intimately.
In my mind, to learn to be alone you have to be alone and not distract yourself from that fact. Yoga would work better than reading, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I have to do this comment in two parts...blogger won't let me post a long entry...

Interesting dialogue you have going here.
As I read it, I thought of an apocryphal story that I once heard concerning linguist S. I. Hayakawa.
Reportedly, he listened to two dorm students holding a lively discussion over some issue and they seemed to be disagreeing on a point. After a while, he stopped the discussion and said, You two are saying the same thing. You are just using different terms to get it across.

So in this conversation, maybe it depends on what is exactly meant by the term “being alone.” Is it a physical aloneness or a mental/psychological existential, dark nights of the soul sort of aloneness that we consider reading able to alleviate? In reading can find a community with which we can identify – even if we are sitting in the middle of a deserted island without another soul around.

As Patchett suggests, we empathize.
Even when one is physically and literally “alone”-- unless he can empty his mind completely – a person is alone “with his thoughts,” which means that there is probably some kind of interior dialogue going on, perhaps with one’s “self.” [IS one really “alone” if one is “with” one’s “self”?]

When he is physically “alone” there may be – within his head - a sort of recasting of a conversation he had with a friend or a replaying of events that have happened in his immediate or distant past; maybe it’s remembering something his father said just before he died.

Merely thinking about these exchanges may provide any number of mind “diversions” that make us feel less alone. We use whatever is at hand to take us away from what can sometimes manifest itself as a burden of self-ness. (to be continued...)

Anonymous said...

(part 2...)

Here it seems that Patchett’s emphasis is not so much on the subject of being alone physically, as on our ability to empathize with others through what some might call an “identification” with the characters or people we read about when we ARE alone - physically.
And what is beneficial about it is that it aids our ability to empathize with another.

In the Wall Street Journal article from which Bookpuddle’s quotation, I think, is drawn, Patchett suggests that this ability to empathize is the all-important point. She says, “Whether you're in the life of Wilbur the pig, or Greg Heffley, the wimpy kid, or that little blonde prince in the desert, you've stepped outside of yourself for awhile, something that is beneficial to every child.”

No other form of expression that I have encountered gives us the ability to understand – deeply, compassionately -- the motives and personality makeup of people who are like - as well as unlike - us.
As Patchett notes, we are now stepping outside ourselves to understand something from another’s unique angle.
When we do this, are we alone? Perhaps the answer can be yes and no.
Physically, there is no getting around it, unless you are one to read while in a group setting (which I find very difficult to do and which is the reason I am amazed to waltz through a noisy bookstore to find people scattered about, reading like monks, without even looking up) you are alone.


But, as “C.” says, you don’t FEEL alone when you are doing it. The Inner You is in all kinds of community.

Though I don’t practice yoga or any form of formal meditation exercise, I see “C.”s point about “aloneness” or an emptying of self. But reading empties us in another way, perhaps - to make room for others into that private space.
And that is the joy – as well as the benefit - of it all.
In the same article Patchett says, “If someone gave you a device with which you could see entire worlds just by holding it in front of your eyes, world of such beauty and complexity that they took your breath away, worlds of suffering and redemption, love and suspense and enlightenment, all of them there for the taking, wouldn't you want to show this device to everyone you knew?”
Reading – like no other thing I know – engages us in a risk-free invitation to feel less alone, less strange, less other -by allowing us exclusive and solitary participation in the inner life of others. In so doing, it gives us the byproduct of extending the same invitation TO others…because we have come to “know” and better understand them through the gifted creations of a writer.
I think I am supposed to apologize for such a long comment post. But it’s a complex idea worth digging into.
Thanks for the thought-provoking post and comments.


Melwyk said...

It's a wonderful quote, and an even more thought provoking discussion! Coincidentally, I've just begun reading a book which talks about these issues, of what reading provides to us in areas like developing empathy, and so on - Read for your Life by Joseph Gold.