The Problem with Reading

My love affair with books and libraries began some time in elementary school and continues to this day. Thankfully, my wife has the same problem, so reading unexpectedly draws us out of ourselves and into accepting communion with one another.

The Night BookmobileReading and relationships aren’t so easy for Lexi, the main character of Audrey Niffenegger’s poignant graphic novel The Night Bookmobile (2010). Lexi lives in Chicago, walks the streets early in the morning, and, one day, discovers the open door of an old Winnebago at the corner of Ravenswood and Belle Plaine.

Inside the mysterious bookmobile, Lexi meets a librarian—Mr. Openshaw—who allows her to roam through stacks of books . . . the reading history of her life, from cereal boxes to novels and everything in-between.

Niffenegger’s short story is tragic and haunting—at once a cautionary tale and a record of how the stories we read become the narrative of our lives: “Have you ever found your heart’s desire and then lost it? I had seen myself, a portrait of myself as a reader. My childhood: hours spent in airless classrooms, days home sick from school reading Nancy Drew, forbidden books read secretively late at night . . . It was as though I had dreamt the perfect lover, who vanished as I woke, leaving me pining and surely.”

As with so many others—the Pevensie children and that mysterious wardrobe, or Harry Potter seated at the foot of the Mirror of Erised—Lexi finds herself longing for a world she cannot control, cannot inhabit, except by living . . . and reading.

But, as Lexi’s troubled journey reveals, the love of literature is full of trappings. When we read, we risk encountering new perspectives and new ideas—new narratives against which we may measure our lives. Sounds wonderful, even romantic. In truth, it’s terrifying.

The dark side of reading—the capacity for books to turn us inward or outward or upside-down—the “moral” dimension of reading—is seldom discussed, but deserves our attention. Imagination is a source of delight, but it can also be a realm of horror. Ideas may change us or even destroy the patterns of daily existence.

Books bring us into communion with otherness. To know and understand the other is to come to grips with the particularity and limits of the self. In the fusion of these horizons—the encounter between text and reader, as Hans-Georg Gadamer aptly describes it—we face both the possibilities as well as the dangers of change.



2 thoughts on “The Problem with Reading

  1. Pingback: Echoes of William Blake | Jeffrey W. Barbeau

  2. Pingback: Niffenegger’s Raven Girl and the Image of God | Jeffrey W. Barbeau

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