In the film Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis is given the words “we read to know we are not alone”. They may well have been his words, probably from An Experiment in Criticism.
We might also read to gain knowledge, and even if we can’t remember what we read, hopefully we can remember where we read it, so we can go back to it later. Or we might read so we get high percentages in one of those “how many of the BBC’s Top 100 Books have you read?” polls, or to appear well-read at dinner parties, and there are many aids to faking the latter.
I am pretty well read, in theory. In practice, I remember very little of what I’ve read. I read quite quickly, but even if I read slowly I still wouldn’t remember what I’ve read. Which means that I often get the pleasure of reading a good book twice, and it doesn’t matter whether I recall the ending as I read, because I can appreciate the journey again. So my reading resembles my experience a little. Thankfully, we don’t have all our memories in front of us all the time. But we receive a trigger – a sight, smell or sound – and memories flood back. “Do you remember when…?” Although it would be useful to retain some memories, so I can learn from my mistakes.
Reading can also create experience. Scientists have found that “when we read a story and really understand it, we create a mental simulation of the events described by the story”. It is as though reading a novel or biography adds to our experience of the world, a safe way of trying things out, though it shouldn’t substitute for real experience.
Lewis also wrote of “the few” and “the many” readers. “The few” are those who seek out space to read, who must read, who often re-read books, and who are open to being deeply changed by what they read. “The many” read when there is nothing else claiming their attention, do not re-read, and show no sign of being changed by what they read.
As I’m considering where and what next, I’m reading and re-reading books by people who have similar interests: who have or are seeking a sense of place; who are living and working prophetically; who have experienced the struggles and sometimes the successes. I am not reading in order to follow their example or recreate what they are doing, but because their stories change me. I learn that I am not alone, that I am not particularly special or different, that others doubt and lack confidence and have struggles too. And that somehow gives me hope and the energy to persevere a while longer.