Writing People Reading Books: Tracking the Elusive Reader

Black and white picture of a young girl on a white dress.

“A book is a device to ignite the imagination.”- Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader

A writer is first – perhaps foremost – a reader. Why, then, is it rare to find our characters reading? It’s not that we don’t find books given a special place in fiction. Writers love writing about books. Our favorite characters are booksellers, English majors, editors, professors, and writers. There’s even a word for books about books (“biblionovels”) which feature every reader’s dreamscape: libraries, bookstores, coffee shops, museums and other literary haunts. Writers write about people writing books, or trying to and failing. Books are regularly thrown against walls or out of car windows; they’re piled beside beds, or tucked beneath sofas. What they are not, it seems, is read.

One of the best-known books about reading, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, depicts a dystopian future where books are outlawed; when found, they are promptly torched to ash. Where reading is most powerful, it would seem, is where it is not shown.

Reading fares better when offered as a social activity. In A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel recalls when, as a young bookseller, he was briefly employed to read aloud to the blind writer Jorge Luis Borges. What he describes is a mutual act of reading:

I would discover a text by reading it out loud, while Borges used his ears as other readers use their eyes, to scan the page for a word, for a sentence, for a paragraph that would confirm a memory.

Borges is correctly described as a reader of the text, as engaged in the activity of reading as Manguel. The act of reading here is that of multiple actions: reading aloud, scanning a page, confirming a memory.

Reading is more often to be associated with women than with men. One reason for this might be that there’s some question about whether reading is, itself, an action. Some argue that it is not, that reading, like thinking or feeling, constitute something other than action. “Reading was not doing, that had been the trouble,” Queen Elizabeth notes politely in Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. But the activity of reading isn’t an easy one to describe. It is surely a physical act: we hold a book open, turn its pages; our eyes scan the text; our tongues might fold and twitch as we mentally process the sound of the words we silently read. While we read, our minds are prone to skip and dive into our own past associations and experiences. Any one reading builds upon countless others.

When we do find readers in books, the act of reading often serves to propel the plot’s action, rather than an activity worth doing on its own merits. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind is an extravagant exercise in writing about reading; the book’s title is taken from the title of the fictional novel that propels the protagonist into a thrilling search for that novel’s author, blurring the lines between the reader of Zafon’s book and the reader of the book found in the text.

Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is the first of her Neapolitan novels, and where we see the spring of friendship first appear between two women, a friendship in which books are a large part. Here, the two girls share their single copy of Little Women:

As soon as we became owners of the book we began to meet in the courtyard to read it, either silently, one next to another, or aloud. We read it for months, so many times that the book became tattered and sweat-stained, it lost its spine, came unthreaded, sections fell apart.

The vivid description belongs to the book, but contained in that book there are actions: sweating on the book’s pages, holding the book open so as to break its spine, opening and closing its cover. The girls read, either silently or aloud. It’s only when they read apart from one another that their friendship starts to fray.

When we find reading mentioned as a solitary activity, it’s likely to be characterized with unappealing metaphors. One might fall into or get lost in a book for hours on end. An unfortunate soul may become buried there. Don Quixote’s madness was said to be caused by a surplus of reading, one of many who confirm Thomas Trotter’s conclusion, in 1807, that “novel reading…is one of the great causes of nervous disorders.” Reading has been said to be at the root of weak minds, failing eyesight, and absence of clear thought. When Bennett writes, “I say reading is for people who have a lot of time and nothing to do. Like women. Those of us who have to work don’t have time for make believe. We’re too busy earning a living,” he’s only repeating something we’ve all been told throughout time. It’s as if by making this claim the author is granting her readers permission to align themselves with that character’s righteousness even while tacitly allowing the reader to continue…to read.

In Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, Queen Elizabeth herself forms an attachment to this activity – though we rarely catch a glimpse of her engaged with the page itself. As a result, her popularity plummets. She’s informed by her regal PR consultant Sir Kevin that reading is considered an elitist activity. “It tends to exclude,” he informs her. “To read is to withdraw. To make oneself unavailable.”

To which the avid reader may respond, “Isn’t that the point?”

Our feelings on the topic are clearly quite mixed. Consider the following passage from Louise Fitzhugh’s Nobody’s Family is Going to Change:

If she started to like the book very much, she would suddenly get suspicious and say all sorts of terrible things to herself about the book, such as it’s probably a bore, who would read that anyway and I never really liked the cover, what am I standing here holding it in my hand for? She would put the book back on the shelf and then take it out again. This indecision didn’t always plague her. If she just went into the library and picked up a book without thinking about it very much, there was no problem. It was when she suddenly wanted to read that book more than anything in the world.

The challenge here is clearly not the book itself. It’s that she wants to read that book “more than anything in the world.” What is it about the act of reading that’s so seditious, so destructive, that we are plagued by our desire to do it? In fact, one of the very issues that worries the good Queen who discovers a passion for reading is that she’s suddenly found bereft of enthusiasm for, well, anything else.

Of course, when reading about a character reading, we ourselves are reading. The writer traditionally wants to draw our attention away from that fact in order to allow us to enter the ceaseless dream of the story. Books are often employed as props at the start of a tale: a character picks up a book, much as we ourselves have picked up a book, allowing us to enter the story. But to draw attention to the act of reading once the book has been opened would be to challenge the fictive dream.

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