I come from a family of readers. My sister, brother, mother, and I would park ourselves on chairs or the couch, spending afternoons in our cramped living room. We’d be alone together with our books.
David Foster Wallace said that reading fiction is a way to overcome loneliness. I think there is something implausible about the claim; retreating into a book is generally a way of avoiding others. And, I admit, I sort of like it that way.
But I have been a member of several book groups, and I teach, and the ways that I interact with books and readers in those settings are entirely different. Reading books together aloud (as my husband, daughter, and I did with the last Harry Potter book); reading with the intention of coming together with others to discuss what we’ve read (as I do with my students or with the members of my summer book group); or reading aloud and puzzling over passages (as I’ve done with a Hegel reading group who committed to getting through his Phenomenology) — these seem to be authentic ways of overcoming loneliness.
Social reading harkens back to an earlier era. In The Social Life of Books, Abigail Williams notes that the practice of solitary reading only developed as lighting and ophthalmology improved and when books became less expensive. The practice of reading to and with others was partly a matter of necessity, but maybe we shouldn’t have given up the act of reading together.
Writing could be another way to overcome loneliness. Authors craft words for readers in an act of recognition that there’s another person out there, sitting on a porch in Boothbay, Maine, or in a bathtub in Minneapolis; in an office in Omaha or in a restaurant in Reykjavik. Writers reach out to that reader, saying, “Spend some time listening to me.”
Literary critic Harold Bloom (who may be curmudgeonly, but nevertheless gets some things right) said, “to read human sentiments in human language, you must be able to read humanly, with all of you… Shakespeare speaks as much to you as you can bring to him. That is to say: Shakespeare reads you more fully than you can read him.” Reading and writing go together — solitary reading brings us closer to others by helping us see humanness in words, and because we, as readers, are also read. To write well is to read well; to read well is to open ourselves to the words of others.
Marianne Janack ’86 is the John Stewart Kennedy Professor of philosophy at Hamilton College and the 2017–18 Phi Beta Kappa Romanell Professor. She lives in Clinton, N.Y., with her husband, John Adams, daughter Madeleine Adams, and cat Sidney Wertimer (named after a Hamilton economics professor).