Being a Reader Makes You Part of a Community

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

“Readers aren’t ‘better’ or ‘healthier’ or, conversely, ‘sicker’ than nonreaders. We just happen to belong to a rather strange kind of community.” Jonathan Franzen from How to Be Alone.

I sometimes think about how it is that I came to read. My mother would read on occasion for fun. Something like a Grisham novel, if I recall. I was read to as a child quite a bit by my mother, father, and grandmother. We would take trips sometimes with my grandmother and stay for a weekend or so and when we would she would read to my cousins and I before bed at our request. There was clearly encouragement to read for fun.

In high school I did not read much, but do remember reading and actually finishing The Catcher in the Rye by Salinger as part of an extracurricular activity I was involved in. I may have read a few other things in high school but nothing I really remember. For the most part I tried to read the bare minimum. I read a book or two for fun and read the Bible out of a natural interest in the stories. Nothing more complicated than a Grisham book, though.

In college I had a few literature classes taught by excellent teachers. We were assigned several books throughout the semester and I think there I had my eyes opened to the fact that I might actually like to read. I made English my minor, not because it was marketable, but because I enjoyed it.

In law school I read because I had to. I also started to read other things out of personal interest for escape and relaxation.

The first few years after law school I read nothing and did very little to educate myself aside from studying for Bar Exams and learning how to practice law. This was the deadest reading period of my life.

Now, and for the past two years, I have read at least a book a week.  I read what I feel like at the time.

I recently read Franzen’s Essay, “Why Bother?” which appears in How to Be Alone. Franzen tries to explain how he got the courage to finish his third novel in the midst of a personal crisis he experienced. In process of averting the crisis he asks, what is the purpose behind writing another novel and particularly a social novel?

Franzen relies heavily on the work done by Shirley Brice Heath to explain what helped him rediscover the purpose behind his writing. Heath would follow readers into book stores and interview people reading or buying “substantive works of fiction.” She concluded that people begin to read when they have been shown how to read works of substance by an adult and when that adult encouraged the same behavior. Heath concluded that the child also had to find a person which whom they could share their interest in reading. As I read this explanation I wasn’t entirely sure that fit my own situation.

Heath goes on to explain, however, that there is a second kind of reader, what she calls the social isolate, that from any early age felt different from those around him. Heath explains that this type of reader will take their sense of being different into an imaginary world and create a dialogue with the authors of the books. In essence, the authors become your community. I tend to think this explains my recent reading binge.

According to Heath, the second type of reader is more likely to become a writer. Of course, this was of great interest to Franzen who must have found his motivation to write in this idea. The idea being that there was a community that needed him to write so that they could have that kind of dialogue. Franzen would have dealt with great guilt had he not written knowing that others needed from him what he had taken from the authors that had come before him.

Given Heath’s conclusion, that you find in reading a sense of being part of a community and a way to be both alone and still part of the social fabric that we crave as humans, I question how social media will change this group of social isolate readers? Will social media make the isolate reader more or less common? Possibly less common because there are now other sources for that sense of community. Possibly more common because these social networks will still not satisfy the desire to feel connected and part of a community after all. Time will tell. I don’t think we know yet.

Photo:  Some rights reserved by stringer_bel

4 Replies to “Being a Reader Makes You Part of a Community”

  1. This is a great piece of work. Being one of the “Social Isolates” who has been reading since he was four years old, and is now a writer, I can say that reading is the foundation of life (at least in my opinion) and should be enjoyed by all…if more folks such as you and I can get the message out there!

    1. Great quote. I think David Foster Wallace said something similar. Must mean they (and you) are on to something.

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