I’ve been thinking a lot about reading lately. Given that I work as a publisher and co-host a book podcast that may not strike you as surprising, but thinking about reading isn’t the same as doing it.
It was prompted by a recent episode of the podcast in which we talked about what we’d read as teenagers. It culminated in a discussion about our experiences of re-reading The Catcher in the Rye, something I hadn’t done for 40 years. It moved me far more than I was prepared for. I mean – let’s be honest – we remember so little of what we read, but the vulnerability and the bravado of Holden Caulfield’s voice brought me up short. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it turns out he’s still alive in those pages: still angry, still railing against the phoney world around him, still trying to stop the kids smaller than him from running off the edge of that crazy cliff. A book that a war-damaged young man had started writing more than 80 years ago could still make me feel – what? – present then? Present now? Both?
What else that we do as humans which is as odd and powerful as this? It’s only reading that gives us this chance to enter another consciousness – that’s why most adaptations of novels fail as films or television – we are always on the outside looking in, being distracted by the visual and unable to access the seams of emotion and reflection that the words on the page mine so deeply.
There’s an important paradox here. The Holden I encountered as a man of 57 is both the same and different to the one I first met at 16. The way a great novel works is more like a musical score than a photograph; it’s an invitation rather a postcard. The best explanation of this process is in the witty and thought provoking book by the French academic, Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (a book that every new publisher and bookseller should be issued with gratis). Bayard makes the point that reading isn’t really about the book at all – it’s about the bits of the book that chime with our own perceptions and insights; the passages, themes, moods or descriptions that are absorbed into our own autobiographies, those individual works-in-progress we are all in the process of compiling. Under the current circumstances, I find this both helpful and consoling. Reading made-up stories might just be the best way for to re-run (or re-boot) our real lives.
Reading helps in other ways, too. A 2016 study at the University of Toronto concluded that "Fiction is the simulation of selves in interaction. People who read it improve their understanding of others. This effect is especially marked with literary fiction, which also enables people to change themselves." Huge, if true: reading achieves easily what hours of arguing with semi-strangers on Facebook always fails to do. By showing us how other people deal with their lives, it deepens our empathy and allows us to change what we think and feel without losing face.
One of the undeniably positive things that the internet has delivered is the proliferating network of blogs, podcasts and zines driven by readers. In her preface to the new translation of André Gide’s Marshlands (NYRB Classics) the Croatian novelist Dubravka Ugrešić captures this moment. Observing that the same handful of books get translated in "Barcelona, Singapore, Kiev, and New York", she sees this monopoly as coming under threat, not from publishers but readers. "Led by their passion for books, writers, translators, readers, editors, and the many others who take part in this act of literary sabotage tunnel their way using secret underground passageways, excavate displaced values, dust off forgotten books. Their passion is their mission."
Our experience with "Backlisted" testifies to that passion. Reading culture is what underpins and nourishes our industry, but like the mycelial network in soil you need to dig to find it. George Saunders acknowledges this web’s existence in the introduction to his exemplary new manual for advanced readers, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (Bloomsbury): "Their passion for literature has convinced me that there’s a vast underground network for goodness at work in the world – a web of people who have put reading at the centre of their lives because they know from experience that reading makes them more expensive generous people and makes their lives more interesting."
That’s exactly where my thinking about reading has brough me, too. It reminds me of the old joke we used to tell each another as booksellers when someone confessed – usually in the pub – that they wanted to become a writer. "Don’t," we’d say, "become a good reader: they’re much rarer and a lot more useful."
John Mitchinson is the publisher of Unbound and the co-host of the book podcast, "Backlisted".