In previous essays about Why Read, I’ve noted Harold Bloom’s three reasons—wisdom, beauty, and information—and added empathy, mystery, and perspective. Now, I’ll add a further reason to read—-connection.
Several different kinds of connections can be fostered by reading. One is similar to the favorite game of “Jewish geography” (you may substitute Italian-American, professional, or your favorite other category) in which one discovers delightfully random ways in which your path has crossed, directly or indirectly, with the path of someone to whom you have just been introduced.
One example of this connection in reading is a reference to a place that has meaning for you and which has just popped up in a book you are reading. These examples fall into two categories, the expected and the random. Among the expected intersections that have delighted me are books about Vermont that mentioned familiar places in our neighborhood of West Windsor—Archer Mayor’s detective story set in post-Irene Vermont has Joe Gunther visiting our neighbor, Woodstock, VT; Howard Norman, who lives 85 miles north of us in East Calais, VT, talks about his local coffee shop/post office/general store and mentions that ‘everything that I loved most happened most every day’ in Vermont, a feeling that I totally share.
Among the unexpected connections which have delighted me were Sophie Calle’s book sited in Freud’s house in London, a place which Susan and I had enjoyed visiting in recent years and Doris Grumbach’s mention of meeting a young artist at Yaddo named David Vereano, whose oil painting hangs at the foot of our bed in Cambridge.
Another category of connection is much more complex, rich, and rewarding, those broadly referred to as ”literary allusion”. How much fun it is to be reading the Sunday New York Times Book Review and have an author refer to Thermopylae, only to have it stir a memory of reading about this ancient Greek/Persian sea battle in a book you read twelve years ago as you prepared for a trip to the Aegean! What a treat to recognize the reference to the 20th C artist Cy Twombly in the essays of Mary Ruefle, an artist whose work I had recently seen at Chicago’s Art Institute. Are these signs of wide-reading and an educated mind, or are they simply a game of intellectual one-upsmanship? Probably, a bit of both.
The reading of a work is enriched by making connections between it and its predecessors. Bloom (there he is again) has written extensively about this in his 2011 book, The Anatomy of Influence, developing the concept that all artists are, at least in part, derivative and dependent on those who went before. Allusions are a shorthanded way of identifying these relationships and enriching your enjoyment of the book by understanding its antecedents and these days, using Google to follow that trail as far as you might choose.
A third sense of connection refers to the actual manner in which you, yourself, wend your way through your own personal reading map of the seemingly endless maze of books, articles, reviews, etc. A favorite personal example of such a line of connection is the line that joins a browse at the Concord Book Shop a few years ago which netted a volume of essays by Zadie Smith entitled Changing my Mind bought because I was aware of her fiction, though I hadn’t read it. The Changing my Mind volume was wonderful, especially an essay on Nabokov, and led to my attending a book reading by Smith at the Cambridge Public Library. After the reading, a member of the audience asked Smith about her favorite authors, and Smith cited Natalia Ginzburg, an Italian essayist, who she was reading. I then read a volume of Ginzburg’s essays (quite sobering view of Italy during WWII) which had been translated by Lynn Sharon Schwartz who I soon encountered as one of the contributors to another 2013 book, Best American Poetry of 2012, edited by Mark Doty whose poetry I had read in 2011, and who was also mentioned in the dedication of a poem by Herbert Morris in his volume, What is Lost. And on and on…..
Another personal line of connection for me has been through Walter Benjamin, the influential 20th C. literary and cultural critic best known for his observations of the impact of mass production on the arts. Benjamin’s name pops up unusually often in diverse sources from essays to fiction. Among the books I read in 2013, Walter was cited by Geoff Dyer, David Shields, Teju Cole, James Wood, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Ali Smith! My favorite Walter Benjamin reference this year was in Smith’s novel, Artful, in which she refers to a game invented by her late husband, a professor, who distracted her at boring academic conferences (isn’t that redundant?) by playing a game in which you were awarded 10 points for identifying the first speaker to mention Benjamin’s name. Keep an eye out for Walter Benjamin since he continues to pop up in unexpected places.
Finally, connection is one of the prime reasons for launching this web site. In a fragmented, distracted, distorted, and non-humanly scaled world, the connections that reading provides to other readers, to authors, and to the vast history of literature provide a human-scale framework, a comforting (or perhaps discomforting) sense that one is not alone.