“We read to know we are not alone,” said C. S. Lewis, which is one widely quoted viewpoint, but readers read for many reasons, including mere diversion, as trivial as watching TV.
Sometimes readers read because they are alone. A book is company. The act of reading invites the reader to participate in the construction of the narrative. He imagines scenes, notices things, wonders where the story is heading, and identifies, perhaps, with one or more of the characters. The book engages him. While he is turning the pages he is less lonely.
Such a reader is already at Base Camp, but above him rises the difficult, intensely rewarding peak which only the good and great reader can hope to attempt.
Of course, no matter how keenly, how admirably, a story, a piece of music, a picture is discussed and analyzed, there will be minds that remain blank and spines that remain unkindled. “To take upon us the mystery of things” – what King Lear so wistfully says for himself and for Cordelia – this is also my suggestion for everyone who takes art seriously. A poor man is robbed of his overcoat (Gogol’s “The Greatcoat”, or more correctly “The Carrick”); another poor fellow is turned into a beetle (Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”) – so what? There is no rational answer to “so what.” We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss. Beauty plus pity – that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual. If Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” strikes anyone as something more than an entomological fantasy, then I congratulate him on having joined the ranks of good and great readers.Writing good fiction is difficult. The physical means of producing it are so easily acquired, and self-delusion is so widespread, that many people fancy themselves skilled when they are not. In the same way, reading appears to be simple. You are taught at school how to decipher the marks on a page and fancy yourself a reader, but unless you develop your technique you will never even get near the foothills. That’s fair enough, if diversion is all you seek, if you are prepared to forgo the panorama awaiting you at the summit.
At the core of reading technique is discernment. First you must discern whether what you are reading is sincere. Has it been written from the heart?
Next: does the author know his job? You cannot construct a piece of furniture if you know nothing about carpentry. Watch out for an inadequate vocabulary, an absence of poetry, an ignorance of flow – and by “flow” I mean the ability to present meanings in the correct order, which is the key to storytelling. Does the author have a clear idea of what he’s up to? If he doesn’t, you certainly won’t, and he is wasting unique and precious hours of your life, hours you can never get back.
By practising discernment you improve your taste. You graduate to better work, and as you graduate the act of reading becomes more and more involving. Your mental eyesight becomes keener. You appreciate an artist when you find one and understand what he is doing, and then you begin to plug into his mind.
I have said elsewhere on this blog that writing fiction is primarily a function of the subconscious: the ability to share someone else’s inmost feelings is one of the most exciting rewards for the good and great reader. While reading a good and great book, the good and great reader’s mind merges with that of the author, is exercised, enlarged, and made stronger. The chances are he will read the rest of the author’s oeuvre. He will do this in order to clarify and expand what he has already gained, to check that the experience was authentic, and to see how the author’s sensibilities have changed over the years.
There is, however, more than that to reading a good and great book. The prose itself will be beautiful. Its aptness and rhythm will give you delight. Its vocabulary will enrich your own, allowing you to express yourself more clearly and make closer contact with your fellow humans. That alone is worth the price of admission.
But it gets better. Literature offers an infinity of alternative worlds. The reader inhabits them in complete safety. He can learn from the mistakes the characters make; he can admire and try to emulate their generosity or wisdom. By so doing, he grows spiritually. He takes upon himself “the mystery of things”.
The deepest mystery is an understanding of other people, and that, I feel, is what C. S. Lewis had in mind.