I have in the past made the statement that we write so that we can be understood, which is what I believe is true; and so, following this same logic, one could argue that we read so that we can understand. Not to understand words, of course, but to understand the underlying emotions and thoughts and actions of characters. We read so we can understand why people do the things they do. I believe this is one of the reasons Shakespeare is so popular even to this day: Even though it requires a massive dictionary to translate his archaic language, his rich and complex characters more than make up for that. These are characters that do things with motivations that are not wholly obvious. They are organic and so very lifelike that you can’t help but marveling at them–even douchepants like Iago and Cassius we adore because, although they’re bastards and destroy their “friends'” lives, we understand why they do the things they do. Why do we understand? Because we read.
Reading is not looking and observing that one word comes after another. Reading is the passive art of figuring out what each word means. Reading is also a life skill–because when you learn how to read books, you learn how to read people; and when you learn how to read people, you can learn how to read yourself. Reading is an act of self-discovery. Keep in mind, however, that while this may be true, reading arrives at the act of self-discovery in a rather cyclical way, by causing you to discover others first. It makes you question yourself through empathy.
I recently reread Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and as I read I understood it more than the first time around because, well, that’s characteristic of rereading books, and because over this Christmas break I have been in the throes of loneliness and homesickness and by understanding the nature of the Buendía family’s solitude I could begin to understand my own. It was a serendipitous moment, for when I began reading I had meant to distract myself from reality; but the book pulled me back and made me face two realities–that of my insanity and that of Macondo–and so when I was struggling with adjusting to new routines I had also to deal with the fatal and ineluctable heartbreak brought on by the most profoundly sad book in the world.* Their understanding became my understanding, and for a moment I was surrounded by the ghosts of the past and struggled to breath in the suffocating hurricane of words the author threw upon me.
Well, you ask, why would you read to have your heart broken? And as you ask I cannot help but smile and shake my head, because the answer is simple. Go find a book and read for yourself.
*This claim is unverified. If you had read a more profoundly sad book than One Hundred Years of Solitude, please inform me so I can check it out, because otherwise I’ll just think you’re making it up. And you probably are, but I prefer to keep open about this sort of thing. Also, bear in mind that sad and profoundly sad are different. OHYoS (profoundly sad) encompasses all human suffering whereas TFiOS (sad) only encompasses one person’s suffering. Sorry, John Green. It’s because you don’t have the eyebrows to be taken seriously.