When a conversation turns to politics, or religion, or any of the other taboo subjects known to produce ire and dispel good humor, the tone in a room changes perceptibly. Longer pauses precede speech for some; others begin to flush. Air passageways constrict, and feet shuffle on the floor. Without needing to be told, everyone present knows that the stakes have risen.
I found myself thinking of this scenario when I was reading a passage from Virginia Woolf’s essay, “How Should One Read a Book?” Take a look:
Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticise at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this, and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite. (CR2 259, emphasis mine)
I love Woolf’s advice in the middle of this passage. In her vision, to read is to open yourself to the mind of another. The subject matter may be just as sensitive and controversial as the conversation I described, but something about the form of a book differentiates the two scenarios.
In a conversation, you have one chance at a particular encounter, a particular moment in the conversation — one chance, as it were, to say the right thing. You can cycle back to the same topic again, but the encounter is not the same. (Thus, the air of hesitancy or of reckless abandon: the first response is crucial and irrevocable.)
In contrast, the beauty of a book is the ability to return and revisit an idea exactly as it was. You will have changed, your response to the ideas having been modified by what you have read and seen since your first encounter, but the text of the book remains the same.
The implication is that a book provides a safe venue in which to encounter ideas wholly outside your comfortable paradigm. It is safe to open yourself to an author in the manner Woolf describes, because you can read the book a second time, with a critical eye. You can accept the author’s preconceptions and presumptions on their own terms, then return to question their merits.
As a result, you can identify the pathos in Shakespeare’s greatest villains. You can appreciate Machiavelli’s subtlety and pragmatism. You can read Kipling and Orwell alongside Coetzee and Rushdie. You can suspend judgment long enough to see, as Woolf writes, “signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, [which] bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other.”
However, if this type of encounter remains possible only with a book or a fictionalized narrator, then the promise of literature is a weak one.
Rather, my hope is that our practices of reading could begin to translate to our practices of encountering others and other ideas. Although I have made the claim that a one-to-one comparison is impossible, I believe we gain something when we train ourselves to read for “signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness.” Literary encounters could serve as “training wheels” for the encounters in which we must meld critical thinking and openness, wisdom and empathy.