The Strange Miracle of Reading

written by Melissa Connolly

Last week, my colleague Keaton’s blog dealt with the unread books that line his shelf, the sheer mass of what he calls “Mount Everest.”

The same week I read Keaton’s draft, the great blog published “Neil Gaiman on Why We Read and What Books Do for the Human Experience.” This piece took the topic – what books mean to us – and reviewed what everyone from Virginia Woolf to Kafka, from Rebecca Solnit to Galileo had to say on the subject of the magic and mystery of the book.  From Solnit’s essay “Flight”: “Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.”

And Herman Hesse, who writes with great beauty in his 1930 essay “The Magic of the Book,” “…there are a few who remain constantly bewitched by the strange miracle of letters and words (which once, to be sure, were an enchantment and magic formula to everyone). From these few come the readers. They discover as children the few poems and stories … and instead of turning their backs on these things after acquiring the ability to read they press forward into the realm of books and discover step by step how vast, how various and blessed this world is!”

I thought about my own bookshelves, and how I read.  I thought about the hope that sits in the unopened book. How opening a book is in some ways the ultimate act of faith.

I was talking a few weeks ago with a friend, a professor of English, who is no doubt one of the finest close readers I know. He can take apart a sentence with intelligence, humor and dexterity, find meaning in each word choice. He can map out the invisible connections to entire worlds of philosophy and culture by looking at the manner in which a sentence has been constructed, the random interjection, the adjective, the simile. He finds the buried analogy, layers of poetic meaning in almost every phrase. And it is, for me, at least, a miracle to watch him pull it all apart, word by lovely word, one discovery leading to another. He finds entire worlds in each sentence.

I wonder, sometimes, how he ever gets through an entire book, this elegant and endless close read. I admire it so much. But I don’t read that way.  I cannot.

To me, books are magic, Hesse’s “strange miracle of letters and words.”  When I read a new book, and it takes hold, I become unaware of the individual word, the beautiful phrase.  I become unaware of the physical act of reading, how my eyes must be moving along the page. Instead my mind and the words that float in front of me merge, and we are wrapped together in the world the book has made, speeding, floating along the periphery of the shadows that characters become inside my mind. I do not stop to admire the analogy, the metaphor, the hidden drops of underlying psychology in individual words.  I do not stop to eat or sleep, I forget work. Friends and family. A book can be an addiction, a new bad boyfriend, an obsession, all-consuming with its demands for time and attention.

As I have gotten older, I approach new books with caution, knowing how they can take over my life for the time I move through them.

So now, my bookshelves, like my friend Keaton’s, are lined with the books I haven’t yet gotten to, books that hold the possibility for me of love and life and journeys into the souls of those who inhabit another world. Books that will take me out of the work I need to do each day. So I hesitate before I open the next strange miracle, knowing that what lies inside could take me from my work, my purpose. Friends and family. Sleep.

But I keep all of these books, live among them, the stories I have not yet read, the characters I have not yet met.  There is hope in each one of them. And that is the miracle.


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