Here's something I found in my journal from four years ago. It's still true today.
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People often ask me why I enjoy reading so much. "What's so great about it?" they ask. "I'd much rather be surfing, or watching TV, or dancing than sitting and reading a book," they tell me, disgusted with my literary addiction.
My reasons always crowd together -- there are so many that I can't articulate them all at once. I read to relax -- the silence that usually accompanies reading is very soothing to me. I read to be alone -- I find that when I'm engrossed in a novel, others tend to drift away from me to carry on their more active, mobile lifestyles in another room. I read to escape -- the most well-written novels can pluck me from my couch or chair and plunk me down in the midst of a formal dinner party, a crowded Italian piazza, a lonely Scottish moor, or a rugged, pre-revolutionary American wildnerness (it's the cheapest form of travel I've discovered).
But most of all, I read to understand, to see, to get the reading right. Here's what I mean: when I open a book, my mind is clear. I stand poised on the brink of nothing. I don't mean a blank canvas -- that's too flat, too bounded by borders and edges. In my mind, there is quite truly nothing there -- a great, gaping emptiness waiting to be filled.
With the first words, that nothingness begins to fill rapidly. From the emptiness emerges a skeleton of what the author wants me to see. The word "forest" evokes tall trees, grassy clearings, and the occasional bit of moss. A few lines in, the word "frost" appears, and I quickly regroup -- now the trees are bare, their branches silvery-white, and the crisp dead leaves beneath my feet crunch as I break the ice crystals that lace them together. In another line, I read "breezy" -- and now the scene is alive with movement, the trees reaching and swaying in a coordinated dance, the tinkle of ice clear on the whisper of the wind.
With every line, paragraph, chapter and page, I keep updating my scene, trying to get it just the way I'm meant to get it. Seasons are replaced, props interchanged, people re-dressed in my head as I fly through the descriptions. And if I've done it right, I begin to know the book, feel its live heartbeat pulse in my hands, understand the characters, hear their voices. I start to really smell the furniture polish in the drawing room, feel the sweat trickle down my back from the humid August air, taste the smooth-oily flavor of the buttered eels on the dinner plate, grow tired with fatigue at the end of an emotionally-charged argument. At that point, I'm no longer a reader -- I am instead a ghost, haunting the story and its inhabitants, walking beside them, hearing their thoughts, sharing their meals and their beds and their heartaches. (And the beautiful thing about it is that I can get it perfectly right, and so can you -- and yet if we were to be able to show one another the book's faces in our heads, they would probably still look completely different.)
In the end, then, that's why I read -- not to hear a good story, but to live it alongside the people who make it happen. I read to taste another's life and dreams and fears, and make them mine. And when I close a book, I am never the same person who opened it. I am always enriched and challenged and haunted in return for what it has given me.