We read not to understand the author. We read to understand ourselves.
We read because it gives us a language to articulate what we feel but previously could not find the words to say. We are never alone in our experiences. The path is well-trodden. The highest purpose of reading is to find highly-skilled travellers on the road of life, and see how they responded to the dilemmas we now face.
“Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all.” -Abraham Lincoln
Great reading does not consist of mindless adoption of another’s beliefs. Great reading lies in discernment. The ability to entertain the ideas of another while ultimately adopting only that which is in accord with your own values.
We have the opportunity to study the most brilliant minds that have ever existed, and pick and choose those ideas which coincide with our own nature. I am a collection of all that I have read– a hodgepodge of teachings spanning across the globe over 2,500 years.
I am Thoreau’s communion with nature, Emerson’s supplication of self-reliance, Stoicism’s frugality and the Buddha’s detachment. I am Plato’s cave-dwelling man coupled with Hemingway’s elderly seaman. I am one with all things as in the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism while being utterly stymied by Zeno’s paradox.
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”- Isaac Newton
I am all that I have read, but I now see that I was these things before I read them. It took teachers of the past to give me the vocabulary with which to describe what I have always felt.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave gave me the perfect metaphor to understand my aversion toward common culture. Hemingway’s Santiago gave me a better understanding of my own persistence. Thoreau’s affinity for the woods gave me the assurance that time spent idly in nature is not wasted. Through the words of great men I have come to find my own.
In learning to better understand my own beliefs, I am given the opportunity to clearly articulate them to others. Fundamentally, we are all driven by the need to be understood. We want others to see the gifts we see in ourselves. We want to share our depths so that others may appreciate the richness of our inner lives.
Reading gives us the vocabulary, metaphors, and prose necessary to communicate our inner complexity to the world. Communication is difficult enough. We fault others for not being able to read our minds, even though much of the time we have failed to do so ourselves. Considering the many obstacles to effective communication, a mastery of our own thoughts and expressive language is paramount if we are to find union with others.