Friday, June 29, 2012

Reading, writing, community

In his book, How to Be Alone, Jonathan Franzen discusses the work of Shirley Brice Heath, who did research on why and how people become readers. One type of reader she identified was the "'social isolate--the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him.'" According to Heath, such readers find a strong imaginary community within books: "'And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read. Though they aren't present, they become your community.'" She also found that this type of reader is especially likely to become a writer. As Franzen puts it: "If writing was the medium of communication within the community of childhood, it makes sense that when writers grow up they continue to find writing vital to their sense of connectedness."

This is probably the first time I've seen anyone put into words my experience as a reader and a writer. I have always found reading to be a strong and intimate form of communication, one that has been very satisfying to me all my life. It does provide me with emotional and social sustenance, not just cerebral exercise. It did serve me especially well in the years when I had fewer "real-life" friends, the years when I rarely found others who shared my interests and viewpoints. I have become a writer, and I find writing to be not so much a chosen activity as it is a vital part of my life.

I also think this is why I embrace blogging and Twitter: they are written exchanges, and my correspondents are not limited by geography. Those of us with similar interests and viewpoints tend to find one another even if we are miles apart.

Do you recognize yourself in any of this?


  1. Absolutely. As a child, the imaginary world of books was a safe, fascinating place. Writing them and connecting with other writers feels the same.

    1. I've always thought of literature as social, even though reading and writing are often done in physical solitude.