Addendum: “Invention: Why We Read”

Matthias Stom - 'Young Man Reading by Candlelight'

I previously wrote an essay in which I explain that the reason for reading is “invention,” which is, as far as I’m concerned, personal discovery. I still hold this to be true, but upon reflection, I do not think that we simply discover ourselves, but rather ourselves and others. Reading the words of another person is perhaps the most intimate way to get to know that person, for in so doing, we get a clear insight into that person’s mind and sense of being. Thus, when we read a text, we “invent” the author in the process; we discover him or her on a highly personal level. As the venerable Professor Bloom says in the preface to his book, How to Read and Why,

Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in your friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrow of familial and passional life. (19)

Through reading, we simultaneously find individuality and otherness, we find a level of intimacy that is not attainable in most of our interpersonal relationships. Friends and family members may pass away or leave in bitterness or indifference, but the relationships we create with authors and their characters will never disappear. We can, for example, pick up a book we haven’t read for years and discover the same people we once knew; we may have changed, but they have not. Even authors remain the same, at least in terms of the text we’re reading, because even though the author him- or herself may change over time, the personality which they imprinted into their text is permanent: it is a record of the author as he or she was at the time of writing. In this way, reading is the basis for the most personal of interpersonal relationships.

And so, I stand by my original contention that we read to invent, but I’m now opening my belief as to what it is we invent. Certainly, we find ourselves and others, and in this discovery, come upon a plethora of subsequent discoveries: wisdom, intellect, spirituality, healing, and so on; but perhaps none of these is as important as the invention of friendship.

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