Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World: Poet Mary Ruefle on Why We Read
By Maria Popova
If you’re lucky, on a few occasions in your lifetime you will come upon an author in whose writing you experience a rare kind of homecoming, a spiritual embrace. For me, such singular homecomings have taken place in the arms of only a handful of writers — to wit, Virginia Woolf, Ursula K. Le Guin, Italo Calvino, Susan Sontag, Rebecca Solnit, Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, E.B White, and, most recently, Mary Ruefle.
It is doubly exulting when one of those rare writers finds the words and rhythms with which to convey what it is, exactly, that transpires in one of those rare moments of homecoming — what reading, at its best, does for the human soul. That’s precisely what Ruefle does in the gorgeously titled 2003 piece “Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World,” found in the altogether unputdownable Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures (public library).
Ruefle — a prolific poet and voracious reader herself, having read an estimated 2,400 books in her life — reflects on “the mirrored erotics of this compulsive activity, reading”:
We don’t often watch people very closely when they read, though there are many famous paintings of women reading (none that I know of men) in which a kind of quiet eroticism takes place, like that of nursing. Of course, it is we who are being nursed by the books, and then I think of the reader asleep, the open book on his or her chest.
We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love — a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpet, utterly forgotten.
In one pause-giving anecdote, Ruefle illustrates the way that reading ignites the miraculous alchemy of associations that is the hallmark of the human mind. She recalls encountering on “page 248” of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn an interview with an English farmer who at one point says to Sebald, “I have always kept ducks, even as a child, and the colours of their plumage, in particular the dark green and snow white, seemed to me the only possible answer to the questions that are on my mind.”
Ruefle found it “an odd thing to say,” but made nothing of it, attributing it to the general quality of Sebald’s book as “a long walk of oddities.” But a few hours later, as she was perusing the dictionary,* she remembered the passage with a jolt as she read the multiple definitions of the word speculum — among them, “a medieval compendium of all knowledge” and “a patch of color on the secondary wings of most ducks and some other birds.”
She marvels at the serendipitous alignment of words and worlds:
Did Sebald know that a compendium of all knowledge and the ducks’ plumage were one and the same? Did Abrams? Or was I the only one for whom the duck passage made perfect, original sense? I sat in my chair, shocked. I am not a scholar, but for the imaginative reader there can be discoveries, connections between books, that explode the day and one’s heart and the long years that have led to the moment.
Imagine my own shock, then, as a mere sentence later I came upon a passage that bears a striking resemblance to Alain de Botton’s recent meditation on the value of reading, and predates it by more than a decade. Ruefle:
In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single lifespan, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and our language, which we alone created, and without which the letter that slipped under the door could never have been written, or, once in a thousand lives—is that too much to ask?—retrieved, and read.
Then, De Botton:
It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.
Did De Botton plagiarize the passage, consciously or not, perhaps in a bout of cryptomnesia? Or is this an honest case of the same idea occurring independently to two minds unaware of each other’s existence? Whatever the case, the very ability to ask such unanswerable questions is a gift granted by the mental cross-connections that books alone make possible.
That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That’s why I read when I was a lonely kid and that’s why I read now that I’m a scared adult. It’s a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicates things — the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe — what else is there? Margaret Mead described intellectuals as those who are bored when they don’t have the chance to talk interestingly enough. Now a book will talk interestingly to you. George Steiner describes the intellectual as one who can’t read without a pencil in her hand. One who wants to talk back to the book, not take notes but make them: one who might write, “The giraffe speaks!” in the margin. In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?
From cover to cover, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures is the kind of book that beckons the pencil to its margins. Complement it with Rebecca Solnit on the shared intimacy of reading and writing, then revisit Kafka — whom Ruefle quotes in the same essay — on what books do for the human spirit.
* Ruefle isn’t merely the type of person who reads the dictionary, but also the type who spends years planning a theoretical course called “Footnotes,” which would require students to read every book mentioned in the footnotes of a definitive text.
Published November 6, 2014