Alone, but connected

Most avid readers don’t need much by way of motivation for what they do. Still, In Bed with the Word: Reading, Spirituality, and Cultural Politics (University of Alberta Press, 2009), a thoughtful meditation on reading by Daniel Coleman, professor of English at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ont., provides good reasons to keep reading.

Coleman considers what’s going on in the practice of reading, and posits it as both countercultural and spiritually beneficial.

He doesn’t present a romanticized view of reading, however. People can be damaged by it (even by the “Good Book”). And, he says, “readers can be insufferable.” But what’s both countercultural and spiritual about reading is its slowness, its emphasis on critical alertness, and its way of humility. “The desire to read emphasizes a basic generosity toward the Other that is the condition of all language.”

One of the strongest arguments Coleman makes is that reading, although private and solitary, actually brings us outward toward others.

…reading does a painful and positive thing at once. It creates the isolated individual who extracts herself from the group, but that isolation is not as alienated as it looks, for reading is also a connection to others, an imaginative connection to the writers and to other readers by means of the tracks the writer has left on the page.

Coleman discusses the “right posture” of reading (charity, as per Augustine), how we encounter the “absent Other” in reading, and reading’s “wide-ranging social and political effects.” The latter are especially emphasized by stories from Ethiopia and the context of slavery in which people gain literacy for the first time.

In summary of this aspect of reading, he says,

[R]eading is a process that simultaneously individualizes us by placing the words on the page between us and the world and connects us by drawing us out of ourselves through imaginative projection toward the thoughts and experiences of others. At one and the same time, reading is a technology of alienation and a maker of new community…. For reading can give us a role to play, a direction for our energies, a way to channel our spiritual hunger that takes us into the social and political worlds in which we live.

I believe he’s right.

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