When is a book actually read?

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2022 Blog Discussion Challenge:

“When is a book actually read? In the moment you hold it in your hands and scan the words? I don’t really think so: That moment would be more like the moment you ingest an intoxicant, but not the actual ride that it will take you on. The “event” of “Kubla Khan” is not Coleridge drinking the opium-laced tea: It’s the subsequent vision of the pleasure-dome; the ensuing loss of that vision; the drawn-out attempt to re-trigger it via other scenes (the damsel with the dulcimer); not to mention the way the poem inhabits and inflects the general imagination to this day. So it is with reading: A book’s or poem’s effects play out over days, and weeks, and years, through their ongoing interaction — interruption, corruption — with and of other texts and contexts. A book is being read as you (and countless other people) walk down the street or fall in love or follow world events, infecting and transforming all these things, and being transformed by them as well. The reading never ends, and that’s the beauty of it.”

— novelist Tom McCarthy

I usually present quotations unmediated by comments because I prefer to let people speak for themselves. However, this quotation made me gasp with its truth—a truth so often overlooked as we go about the daily business of living.

Life story theories say that we build our identity as a result of our experiences. For those of us who love books, reading comprises a huge portion of our experiences. We read to learn new things, to visit life situations in contexts different from our own. All the thoughts, emotions, opinions, questions, answers, problems, and solutions we encounter through reading must contribute to who we become, what values and behaviors we choose to profess and to model in our lives.

Recently I’ve been thinking about a couple of novels that I read more than 20 years ago. I don’t remember most of the details about them, but I remember enough to know that I want to reread them (hopefully) some time this year. 

My vagueness about the details of those two novels doesn’t mean that the books weren’t important to me. In fact, I think the extended reading process McCarthy describes goes on largely outside of our conscious awareness. It’s not a case of being able to say “I learned Lesson X from reading this particular book.” But the very fact that those two novels keep poking at my consciousness means that I am still “reading” them in the larger sense, and a renewed reading of them might pay off.

What About You? 

Have you ever had an experience like this? And what do you think about McCarthy’s notion of when a book is actually read?

© 2022 by Mary Daniels Brown

8 thoughts on “When is a book actually read?”

    1. Mary Daniels Brown

      I agree, Liz. It’s one thing to run your eyes over words until you reach the bottom of the last page, but it’s something else entirely to incorporate the contents into how you think about life.

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