"A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies the man who never reads lives only one”
“Books should broaden us, take us to places we have never been and show us things we have never seen, expand our horizons and our way of looking at the world.”
George R.R. Martin.
Some books have an effect on me. Usually they are long books, long, long books that capture my life for weeks. The description in the books has to be vivid, the characterisation spot on and most of all they have to make me feel something. They have to take me somewhere by being nothing more than words arranged in a certain order. They make me live.
I recently read a book called Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. It’s a book based in the second world war. It concerns itself with the battle for Stalingrad and the lives and fates of people intertwined with this war. This book covers everything taking you into the mind and heart of a Jew on his way to the “showers” as they were called. And this scene had my heart pounding. I read recently that there is a terrible suspense in knowing something will happen and then waiting for it to happen. As these Jews are herded into the cattle trucks we already know the end of their journey. But we get to know them. We learn titbits about their lives a young boy feels for the first time the “sweet sadness of being in love”, relationships are formed and all the time the cold march of fate goes on. With every word we get closer to their demise. There is a scene where some of them are ordered to the showers and they go. They have no idea what is in store for them even though we do. They get out of clothes they had worn for weeks relieved that they have a chance to do this. Happy about being out of the rot and smell and sweat of a journey where they are packed like cattle. The words “zyklon b” slip into the book and we can see with terrible clarity what is about to happen and then they die. The gas scene isn’t spared, a woman looks for a boy she befriended, and tries to comfort him in what she knows would be their final moments. A mother and daughter cling together in terrible fury, holding on to something that feels real. A hold and grasp so desperate that the German soldiers know not to try to pry them apart. And the book takes us into the inner lives of so many more. Stalin and Hitler make an appearance. Doubts gnaw at them as they surely must. They wonder not if they are on the right goal because fanatics rarely do but they feel fear, they wonder if they can achieve their goal. They are scared not just of failing but of being thought fallible.
You see this is one of the reasons I read. For a while I was Hitler, I was Stalin, I felt what it was to be in a gas chamber and to live in a city under siege. A place where bullets are as common as hallos. And I could understand that after a few months of that a return to normalcy feels strange. Books can do that to you. Writing, good writing can do that to you. It can move you in unexpected ways and most of all there has not been any other invention that lets you know how it feels to be another human being. Nothing can take us inside the skin of another person so completely. Let us feel as he felt and love as she loved.
Right now I am reading a book called Fevre Dream that is based in the Mississippi river and as I read it I remember the reason I must learn to swim. One day I want to work on a cruise ship. And no I don’t want to work on there for just a day I want to live and work there for a year. I can’t imagine anything grander, having no land under you waking up every day in the same place but not really. Inhabiting a country or a lack of one that is truly global in nature. No question of visas or immigration on the high seas. Just human beings living together. Knit into one monolith by the thing that keeps us afloat. Every few days a new destination. The smell of salt constantly in your nose, the crash of waves in your ears, the rocking of the boat your gravity and the sea nights black and blue and beautiful, a reflection of the full moon caught in the water(I can only see it as full) a circle of white light floating and rippling turned into tiny waves of moonshine as imperfect a mirror as the thoughts we have of ourselves. I can’t imagine anything grander than the sea nights. The silence would stretch away into forever and if you went out and looked at it you would hear that peculiar voice with which water talks to human beings. That calming, soothing, voice that tells you everything will be ok. Don’t you worry yourself, don’t fret. I know better. The sea. It is not as hard and unyielding as the land. It will allow itself to bend to the whims of humans to be cut through but it is so many times more infinite. Its depths contain a world we have not yet began to explore. A cold world of wonderful creatures and a warning of danger. Nothing that powerful is to be trifled with.
I know nothing about the sea. About ships. About cruising. I know about the voice of water because I do hear it and hear it well but everything I else I know, the things I really know almost like I was there myself come from the books I read. We were given this one life and soon it passes away into obscurity and nothingness. All through this life we inhabit this one skin. A skin that grows and we inside it grow too. We change and become different persons and then we change back into the person we had been all along. But we have words, we have books and we have writing. We have ways, magical ways of living a thousand and one lives. We can be knights and ladies, thieves and vagabonds, kings and lords, presidents, popes, heads of families. We can live on this world and in others. We can visit different times we can have conversations with people long since dead or never real. We can have adventures and we meet beautiful women, we can get drunk and sober up. We can laugh and play and love and mourn and into this one life fold multitudes of others. Because we can read.
I read because things begin to feel real in the inside of words. My favourite part of any piece of reading is one that I can only see while looking back, sometimes it is in the first word I read, or so far inside the book that I am glad I read that far, there is that point when like a boulder falling down a sheer cliff I fall into the universe created by the words I am reading. When I am lost in them, embraced by them and can't find my way out. When i am suffocated by what I read but it made me sprout gills and the thing I feel will kill me is breathing normal air. The point when the characters become people you know and care about and the plot a part of your life that needs a resolution. That point when reading resembles living so much you are not sure which is which, that point is why I read.
So to all the books I ever loved. To every single one of you thank you for giving me another life to lead.