We read to know that we are not alone. ~ C.S. Lewis
It is still a matter for debate as to whether C.S. Lewis actually made the above statement. The quote arrives by way of Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Lewis in the movie “Shadowlands”. It appears in none of his own writings. You may forgive my attribution for the course of this blog as you will likely never again see me quote this Christian apologist. Aside from “The Chronicles of Narnia” and an extremely intriguing critique of his text “The Screwtape Letters” by a fellow non-theist, I have not read any other writings from or about him. All others are fairly low in my present list of intellectual priorities.
The quote finds itself so personally penetrating as it was folded into a story I discovered while Google searching my blog name for reference and duplication. In a tiny literary pond known as the “Bookpuddle”, a blog entry entitled The Post Literate Epoch? appeared in 2007. This particular blog title was discussing the concept of children in the digital age navigating within a post-literate epoch.
The author found themself in a book store overhearing a conversation between a group of high school girls about a book title for which one of them had completed a report although she never read the book. It was revealed shortly thereafter in the conversation that she had located a website with a summary of the book and copied her report data from there. The group also went on to express disgust for Jane Austen to the chagrin of the eavesdropping author.
I am no particular fan of Jane Austen either. As I mentioned to a friend on Facebook this past week, I have only recently returned to the practice of deep reading after living as a habitual book skimmer for some 15 years. Yet this quote resounds so powerfully within me after a weekend at the Black Oaks campground where the subject arose as to whether members of our present era find themselves in the grips of an extreme yet subtle solipsism.
Solipsism is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as the theory that the self is the only thing that has reality or can be known and verified. It is composed of the Latin terms “solus” meaning “alone” and “ipse” meaning “self”. A deep philosophical egocentricity which in a modern global context is the luxury of the American citizen who too often perceives their own cultural identity as the only matter of relevant discussion across the planet.
Presently I am reading a text entitled “On Being Black” compiled and edited some time in 1970 by Charles T. Davis and Daniel Walden. Their object in assembling these writings was to trace the intellectual inheritance of the concept of “blackness” between a selection of authors spanning from the Emancipation through the close of the Black Arts Movement at the outset of the 70’s and therein create a discussion for how each writer perceived and used “blackness” in their work. Anthologies find themselves to be a most useful means to revitalize work which may have been overlooked, ignored or narrowly analyzed in order to obtain new meaning.
“On Being Black” appears at early appraisal to accomplish this task quite well as its “Introduction” chapter exhibits the overlapping folds and currents which undergird each literary movement through which black people in America have transitioned. To read the struggle to wrangle this concept of “blackness” during Emancipation, Reconstruction, Renaissance, and all periods forward and between while not allowing it to become its own dogmatism, one continues to feel ever more deeply connected to a long literary tradition and cultural lineage.
While it may be less possible or probable that one can travel the world often, you can read a book and have a conversation with someone who has come from a distant shore. Social reading predates the inevitable rise in the digital age of Goodreads. Book clubs, reading circles, and study groups have long been practiced before its time, but there is something to be said for the immediacy of engagement that can occur and the amount of physical and intellectual space that book discussion can cover in a short span of time.
So I ponder now this process of reading and how it strengthens my external connectedness to an expanding world outside of the limited scope of my own mind. I am connected now to the author writing and also to the experience of those about whom they have chosen to write. I am communing with a period of time in which I could not live and partaking of a possibility I had not yet imagined whether they are bleak and dystopic future societies or the horrific historic infractions humans have committed against one another. Reading expands the circle of my ideas about people and our process.
Perhaps this is why I find myself so disturbed with the dissolution of the communities of reading and writing. Only a week ago I stumbled across the Salon article citing how many aspiring writers have little desire to read. How then do you connect to the diversity of ideas that exist in the larger world? Are there not sufficient studies to show that your circle of personal friends are typically inclined to be closer to you in thought even when you think them diverse?
Reading is an escape from this mental monoculture. You want both something different to think about and more expansive to talk about. Reading is how you obtain that insight and in the process lift others around you up. Hopefully, your circle of friends is reciprocating the same. For if they are not, then you truly are alone because the scene in your mind never changes. Read and change the wallpaper of thought.