Why We Read: Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska on What Books Do for the Human Spirit
By Maria Popova
“A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on why we read. For Galileo, books were a way of having superhuman powers; for Kafka, “the axe for the frozen sea within us”; for Carl Sagan, “proof that humans are capable of working magic”; for James Baldwin, a way to change our destiny. “Reading,” E.B. White wrote as he contemplated the future of reading in 1951, “is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy.”
Like the most beautiful human experiences, reading affords us something immensely important and intensely rewarding, yet almost impossible to put into words. To wrap language around the ineffable is the task of poets, of course, so how befitting that the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) should give us one of the truest and most wonderful articulations of what books do for the human spirit.
In Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces (public library) — the magnificent collection that gave us Szymborska on how the prospect of being alone in the universe can make us better stewards of our humanity — she writes:
I’m old-fashioned and think that reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised. Homo Ludens dances, sings, produces meaningful gestures, strikes poses, dresses up, revels, and performs elaborate rituals. I don’t wish to diminish the significance of these distractions — without them human life would pass in unimaginable monotony and, possibly, dispersion and defeat. But these are group activities, above which drifts a more or less perceptible whiff of collective gymnastics. Homo Ludens with a book is free. At least as free as he’s capable of being. He himself makes up the rules of the game, which are subject only to his own curiosity. He’s permitted to read intelligent books, from which he will benefit, as well as stupid ones, from which he may also learn something. He can stop before finishing one book, if he wishes, while starting another at the end and working his way back to the beginning. He may laugh in the wrong places or stop short at words that he’ll keep for a lifetime. And, finally, he’s free — and no other hobby can promise this — to eavesdrop on Montaigne’s arguments or take a quick dip in the Mesozoic.
Nonrequired Reading is a thrilling read in its entirety, brimming with Szymborska’s marvelous “loose associations” inspired by books on everything from cosmology to philosophy to love. Complement this particular reflection with C.S. Lewis on why we read and David Foster Wallace on the redemptive power of reading, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s beautiful readings of Szymborska’s poems “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait.”
Published February 17, 2016