What you read matters

It is what you read when don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” ~Oscar Wilde

I’ve been thinking about a post I read of a woman bragging about how many books she read over the summer: over forty before she lost count. Since then I’ve noticed many other people claiming they read two or three books a week, and I’m astounded.
Not because I’m jealous (I’m assuming these women—all mothers—simply don’t sleep), but because I don’t know how they absorb what they read.

But maybe that’s my fault. I don’t read simply to zip through a book. Something inside me insists on devouring, savoring, then regurgitating the story. 
Uh, ok . . . that wasn’t very appetizing, but honestly I can’t come up with a more suitable metaphor.

What I read becomes part of me, of my psyche, and shapes how I view the universe and the minutiae around me. Because of that I’m very selective as to what I read. I know that, like a large soup, this book in my hands will add to the recipe of me, and I want to make sure that I’m not tossing in something unsavory or unsuitable, like a box full of donuts.
That’s not to say donuts don’t have their place (and the gluten-free part of me is now in Homer Simpson-like mode drooling and saying, “dooouughhnuuuuts”).

But a steady diet of donuts is unhealthy. (Oh, how I miss donuts!)

I’ve started many more books than I’ve ever finished. By the third chapter of a novel I decide if I will continue to add this ingredient to my stewing mind because it will expand the flavor or add a unique and unexpected taste, or if I will set it aside because it will taint the entire pot.
About half the books I’ve picked up I’ve put down again after half an hour. Sugar-coated nothingness—or worse, caramel-covered excrement—doesn’t belong in my head. 

I’ve seen many examples of people unconsciously exhibiting what they’ve read. Once I was tutoring a young woman with severe reading disabilities, helping her to learn reading rules she never before mastered. As we slogged through a passage about a young man confused and bewildered and looking for answers, we came upon this sentence:
“He wandered into to the woods to —”

I knew the word was “pray.
But she read the word as “party.”

When I quietly corrected her, she chuckled and said, “Guess you can tell what I was trying to read right before I came today!”
I didn’t ask.

For many years I did the following experiment with my students, to demonstrate how what is on their minds alters how they interpret the world. I divided the class into three sections and had the groups close their eyes. Then I wrote some words on the board, had one group read them silently, close their eyes again, and I repeated the procedure with the other two groups. Each group saw only their collection of words.
I then had all of groups open their eyes and tell me what the word should be that I wrote on the board: r_pe.

One third would say “ripe,” because the words I put on the board were banana, apple, and orange.

Another third would say “rope” because they read the words string, knots, and boats.

That’s when the third group would squirm uncomfortably, because they saw the word as “rape.”
Because on the board I wrote anger, violence, and power.

I never had a class that wasn’t surprised at how what was most recently in their mind affected the innocuous letters put before them, requiring their interpretation.

So I worry when I see acquaintances posting about books they’ve read, or talking about stories they love, because those were books I set aside. I hope that the rapidity with which they gulped down those words means none of them really stick, but it eventually all comes out.

A friend of mine says she can tell the difference between when her daughter has been consuming Shannon Hale versus Manga. The level of her teenage angst varies drastically, and sometimes the entire family suffers.

When I read something, I read and reread and reread. For a long time I thought perhaps this meant something was wrong with me (aside from my bits of OCD and other endearing neuroses). Even as a girl I read the Little House on the Prairie series about ten times.

But then I ran across this beautiful quote, timely in that this weekend is the 50th anniversary of when this great man graduated to the next world.

“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.

“The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. We have all known women who remembered a novel so dimly that they had to stand for half an hour in the library skimming through it before they were certain they had once read it. But the moment they became certain, they rejected it immediately. It was for them dead, like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday’s paper; they had already used it. Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.” cs lewis

Thank you, C.S. Lewis!
He also expresses marvelously how many of my other friends and I approach books:

The first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.

On the other hand, I wonder if those who plow through novels like I tackle a tube of Pringles (blessedly gluten-free!) experience this, again from Mr. Lewis:

“When they have finished the story or the novel, nothing much, or nothing at all, seems to have happened to them.”

You tell ’em, Sean!

(But things happen to me when I eat a whole tube. Ugh.)

I have a few Terry Pratchett books which I’ve read five and six times, only so I can observe how he crafts the story. I watch intently for the tiny crumbs of foreshadowing he drops, savoring his turns of phrase and descriptions that dumbfound me in their creativity. And I laugh at the same spots every time, and I cry at the same places once I realize they are coming.

Somehow, it seems wrong to spend time in a story and not be moved and changed by it.

But perhaps even worse than being not changed, is being changed in all the wrong ways.

2 thoughts on “What you read matters

  1. Thanks, Trish. Word power is amazing. i recently watched Midnight In Paris for the 4th time but only this time caught Owen Wilson saying, after he kisses Adrianna, that he feels immortal. This movie stars Owen Wilson (not a heavy-hitter) and was directed by Woody Allen. The character of Ernest Hemingway has one very memorable scene that i had to google the lines to find the immortal reference.
    “All men fear death. It’s a natural fear that consumes us all. We fear death because we feel that we haven’t loved well enough or loved at all, which ultimately are one and the same. However, when you make love with a truly great woman, one that deserves the utmost respect in this world and one that makes you feel truly powerful, that fear of death completely disappears. Because when you are sharing your body and heart with a great woman the world fades away. You two are the only ones in the entire universe. You conquer what most lesser men have never conquered before, you have conquered a great woman’s heart, the most vulnerable thing she can offer to another. Death no longer lingers in the mind. Fear no longer clouds your heart. Only passion for living, and for loving, become your sole reality. This is no easy task for it takes insurmountable courage. But remember this, for that moment when you are making love with a woman of true greatness you will feel immortal.”
    This is why readers love to read what writers love to write. That’s all.


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