Reading can be an intimate experience. Some books scoop you up from their opening sentence, articulating a vague feeling you had about the world but couldn’t put your finger on. Others take time to get into, but eventually become unexpected favorites, exposing a side you didn’t know you had. When immersed in fiction, the world falls away—time slows down, and your imagination takes over.
Since the pandemic began, the world has become scarier, and so the prospect of seeking refuge in fiction is even more appealing. But while the act of reading is solitary, sharing books with others can be a meaningful form of communication, especially while contagion makes it challenging to socialize as much as before. When a warm-hearted friend enjoyed a collection of Raymond Carver’s short stories so much that she sent me a copy, I speculated about what it was in the sparse, sometimes brutal prose that had so appealed to her.
Similarly, when my boyfriend was unimpressed by the Lydia Davis short stories I’d found hilarious, it felt like a personal affront. Her book examined all the things that most amuse me, so, in that moment, his “I just didn’t find them funny” felt more like “I just don’t find you funny.”
But I’ve come to notice that literature doesn’t only strengthen intimacy—it can actually create it. Reading establishes a relationship between two people who will likely never encounter one another in life: the reader and writer. Like the modern phenomenon of “meeting” someone on a dating app, the reader builds an impression of the writer solely through a series of their divulgences. The relationship develops quickly, over a number of days, but, in the case of literature, it is entirely one-sided. The sense of sudden voyeurism is particularly intense when the book in question is a work of “autofiction”—loosely defined as writing that blurs the boundary between memoir and fiction, allowing the reader into the mind of the writer herself.
In Sheila Heti’s autofictional book Motherhood, the narrator grapples with the question of whether or not she should have children. The narrator may or may not be Heti herself—there is no attempt to disguise her identity, to cloak it in common fictional devices, but the book is nevertheless presented as a novel. So, when the narrator makes such observations as “there is a kind of sadness in not wanting the things that give so many other people their life’s meaning,” the fact that the “sadness” may be Heti’s own, that it may be truth rather than fiction, adds to its poignancy.
Even the traditional novel, with an entirely fictional plot, will still contain something of the writer’s worldview. When asked whether her novel The Days of Abandonment has “an autobiographical component,” Elena Ferrante stated that “there is no story that doesn’t have its roots in the feeling that the writer has about life.”
And even when a novel gives away little of the writer’s personal opinions, it still documents the opinions of its characters, exposing their hidden motivations and darkest secrets. In Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Kiki Belsey, engaging in a moment of maternal pride, visualizes herself giving an “imaginary speech to the imaginary guild of black American mothers: and there’s no big secret, not at all, you just need to have faith I guess. . . .” Few mothers would admit to entertaining such thoughts, certainly not Kiki, but it’s likely that she is not alone in doing so privately. Even though Kiki doesn’t exist, and even though I, the reader, have shared with her nothing of myself, she has been more intimate with me than many will be with even their closest friends.
“Bookworm,” may bring to mind a reader so enthusiastic that the habit causes her to neglect real life. It’s true that readers can escape, momentarily, from reality, but the books we consume can actually strengthen our bonds with others. Vargos Llosa writes that, in reading literature, “we learn what we share as human beings, what remains common in all of us.”
Reading is enjoyable in all seasons of life. But in periods in which it’s harder to see others in person (whether due to a pandemic, postpartum, or medical treatment), literature is even more precious. In reminding us of what we have in common, it reminds us that we are not alone.