Some say they read literature to build empathy and develop a deeper understanding of lives different from their own. It sounds so selfless, so noble. But, if I am to be honest, I am neither as selfless nor as noble as that. Sure, one of the benefits of reading is that it invites us to reach beyond ourselves and our limited knowledge of the worlds outside ours, but, for me, what I like most about literature is that within it I can find myself and in doing so feel less alone in my own small world, for my world, as all worlds are, is a lonely place. We are solitary creatures-no matter how many people surround us, no matter how many friends and relationships we forge, we are alone with our thoughts, our memories, our secrets.
Sometimes readers and writers remain strangers, walking side by side, appreciating the company, but, in the end, they develop no greater understanding of the other than in the beginning. But there are other times, when somewhere in the forest of thought and words, there is a flicker of light, and under that light the writer fully sees the reader and reveals to her what before was unspoken, hidden, buried.
Sometimes a writer looks at you and tells you who you are. Or tells you that you are not alone, for she is the same as you, at least in that moment, in that thought, in that action. This, for me, is the greatest gift the writer bestows upon the reader.
I do not possess the ability to retain and perfectly recall hundreds of lines I have read in books from years past. There are only a handful which I carry with me, but these have been my companions, assuring me that someone else, some writer at some moment in time, felt the same way I did, and we met once when I wandered into her world of mystery and words, and in a flicker of light she saw me, and I understood that I was not alone.
Here are a few of those lines:
“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!” Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
“I’m inclined to reserve all judgements, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to secret griefs of wild, unknown men.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
” ‘You will have only one story,’ she had said. ‘You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.’ ” Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton
“What if my whole life has been wrong?” Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich
What lines do you carry with you? When has an author echoed or articulated your thoughts, secrets, fears? What has an author said to reassure you that you are not alone?
Here is one. I guess it doesn’t matter if it comes from a movie rather than from a book.
“I knew, somehow, that I had to stay alive. Somehow. I had to keep breathing.”