I may be an introvert by nature, but I actually enjoy meeting new people. I like people’s stories. It’s interesting to hear where they came from and where they are now, and what they are passionate about (unless, of course, they happen to be passionate about something I find boring, like accounting or law. Not that there’s anything wrong with that). However, it is difficult to go from the initial “Hey, you like to listen to Van Halen too? That’s awesome!” to building and maintaining a friendship. It takes time and energy to invest in people, and sometimes you don’t get much in return.That’s why for me it’s easier to turn to a book when I want a good story.
A book requires no commitment and no involvement. Just open the book and you are whisked away, floating down the river with Rat and Moley, or welcomed into the cozy home of the March family. Any conflicts are always resolved, and although they may incite a temporary emotional response, they leave no lasting scars. You can pick up a book when you want and you can set it down when you want – no repercussions, no hurt feelings. You control how the story affects you.
Real life is much different. Once you invite someone into your life, and they invite you into theirs, you step into each other’s stories. When the characters get annoying and messy, you might want to put the book down, but you can’t. Real people make mistakes. They involve you in their problems. They make demands on your time and attention that characters in books never will, and there’s nothing that you can do to control them. You’re stuck in the story now.
Even if imaginary characters seem more appealing than actual people, a relationship with a book is far more limited than one with a live person. Books can’t respond to your affections in the way that real people can. Books can’t listen when you need to talk. Books can’t drive you to the emergency room. Any relationship that you might have with a book is completely one-sided, and once you have finished a book, it’s over. Some books may hold up to the scrutiny of multiple readings and still have new gems to impart, but even the deepest and richest books cannot compare to the depth of a human soul.
The value that books have is not from what they are in and of themselves, but rather the way they impact how you live your life. This is true whether you read books as a form of escapism or to accumulate knowledge. Imagination and knowledge are only valuable if they change how we think, informing our actions towards the people around us and giving us insight into human character and relationships.
Books are meant to connect people, not to substitute for them. Traditionally, that is what stories did – connect. People gathered around to share stories: to laugh, cry and gain insights into each others’ lives. With the advent of the printing press, the nature of the story began to change, going from something shared and enjoyed in company to something that one could have for oneself in private. Whether through books or through more modern means like social media, there is a danger in hoarding stories and isolating oneself. It takes away the most wonderful part of stories- the building of relationships.
Some of my best memories from my childhood were reading aloud with my parents. I remember sitting in Dad’s lap in his blue wingback chair, and he would “read” Good Dog, Carl. Later, when I learned how to read, I realized that the elaborate story existed completely in Dad’s head- the book only had pictures. I remember when I was older, and my sisters and I would all pile into Mom and Dad’s bed, all cozy and squished, listening with rapt attention as they read us endearing stories such as Little House on the Prairie, All of a Kind Family, and Rascal. Not only was I transported to these wondrous places, but so was my whole family. We all were stunned when Ma mistook a bear for their cow in Little House in the Big Woods and slapped its behind. Together we laughed at the shenanigans of Rascal, the (mostly) domesticated raccoon. The stories read together with my family seemed magical. Each emotion, each laugh, each lesson learned, was shared, and helped us grow closer together.
This doesn’t mean that we should stop reading to ourselves. We can still encounter the story on our own, be it at home, in the library, or on the beach, but we can’t let it stay there. We should share stories with people and, most importantly, we should share in people’s stories. Read aloud with your family. Discuss new books you’ve read with your friends. Maybe join a book club. Be willing to share your stories, and be willing to listen to the stories of others. That is how relationships are built; that is what draws human beings together.