Christian | Standing Stones Healing Co.
“Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself."
I grasp the salmon-colored paperback in my hands. The book is worn and ripped at the edges, and the front cover is scotch taped to the spine. Smooth and pliable, the yellowed pages smell like some old attic. Opening the cover, the first page says only, “Henry David Thoreau.”
I purchased my copy of Thoreau’s Walden Pond for 25 cents at a used book sale a few years ago after having read and been moved by a few selections from the text. Passages like, “The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats,” spoke to me and created powerful feelings within me.
Literature possesses this profound ability to “speak” to us, to initiate feelings, create questions, inspire, or teach. When we say we enjoyed a book, what we really mean is that we connected to it, that in its lines we found something understandable and familiar: more than black words on white pages, it contains meaning beyond its binding.
The meanings that we extract from literature can help us learn about ourselves. If I read in Walden that “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul,” and pause, reflect, and say, “Yes, I understand.” or “Yes, I agree,” this simple act of acknowledgment creates a connection between the text and me. I have found myself in the book, in the words, messages, or images it creates; I identify with it and therefore identify myself: I can point to this passage and say, “Here I am.”
The acknowledgment of ourselves in a piece of literature is exciting and is often accompanied by a gasp or sigh or flutter of the heart at our own thoughts expressed to us by another. Perhaps before reading the passage, I myself had never verbalized or even formed the concrete thought that my spiritual fulfillment does not lie in wealth. But in reading this passage, I immediately understand its sentiment, see myself in it, and in identifying myself, I learn something about myself. If I can say “this is me” to something brand new, to a statement I read in a book, then I have experienced a moment of self-discovery and self-awareness. I have revealed an aspect of myself of which I wasn’t even aware.
Because they have the ability to help us explore ourselves, books are like boats: little vessels that carry us to undiscovered islands within ourselves. When we open a book, we step into a vehicle of self-discovery. Its words can reveal to us parts of ourselves that we weren’t aware existed. In happening upon passages or ideas that resonate with me, I am transported to an unknown piece of myself, a little island previously undiscovered.
Literature, and reading in general, therefore becomes a mode of travel within the self. According to the 1924 “The Guide to Reading,” literature is “so rich and vast that while one travels along from delight to delight he goes also with the chance of finding something gloriously new—something that opens up a whole new world, and though it happens a thousand times it is as wonderful the thousandth time as it was the first.” Like an expedition, literature is an adventure full of possibility, and the new worlds that it opens up are worlds within the self.
Not only does literature have the ability to transport us, it can also transform us. In discovering new islands within ourselves, we equip ourselves with greater self-knowledge and understanding, which allows us to live lives closer to our true, spiritual selves. When I read, “In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them,” that “whole new world,” opens up for me. I reach a new island, and I am so struck with this discovery that I can’t help but be moved to tears: yes, I understand; yes, I am here. But I am here not only because I identify, I understand, I connect, I am also here because I am inspired. I identify with these words because I want to embody them, and in discovering that I want these words to be my words, I can strive to live a life that aligns with them.
In discovering this island and reflecting on it, I can use its discovery to change me. If I can say that I identify with these words, this idea, then even though I may not be these words, I have discovered that I want to be them. In finding this island of myself that I did not know existed, I can strive to live my life in accordance with it; I can be more myself. The passage then assumes a transformative power in that it creates the desire for change. It may be this transformative power of literature that compelled Thoreau to proclaim, “Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”
So pick up a book. Open it. And allow it to teach you new things about yourself. Allow that small ship to transport and transform you.
© Standing Stones Healing Co.