If someone were to ask you why you like reading so much, how would you answer?
For me, reading goes beyond the pages of whatever book I’m reading. It’s fantastic to get lost in a different time, different place, and to get know different (albeit often fictional) people. It’s even more fantastic when those different times, places and people help us find pieces of ourselves we didn’t know were missing. I personally love how reading opens us up to other things in the world like art, music, dance, and different literary forms.
Part of how this is done is trying to find similarities between different characters and their respective stories. For instance, I remember very clearly writing an essay (a very poor attempt at the time) comparing Aragorn (Lord of the Rings), Beowulf (from the poem of the same name), and King Arthur (various sources). The connections between those three characters may not come as any great surprise to some of you. Their stories are remarkably similar in many ways, albeit Beowulf has less of the magical and more of brute strength. For me, it came naturally because I had a great fondness for the stories to which they belonged. King Arthur, in fact, was a starting point for a lot of my writing. It fed into my later love of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, my appreciation for the Pre-Raphaelite art, my interest in knights and medieval history, and going even further down the rabbit hole, Celtic history. King Arthur even appeared in my childhood as Walt Disney version of The Sword in the Stone which was itself based up on a book by T.H. White.
Making connections between different genres and forms comprises part of why reading is good for us in the first place. Perform a Google search on the subject, and you will find any number of articles citing how reading can prevent cognitive decline, how it strengthens our vocabulary skills, improves empathy, etc. Every time, the conclusions are the same: mindful reading is good for the body as well as the mind. I would argue that part of why it’s so good for us lies in how well we can take whatever it is we are reading and link it to other topics, genres, and art forms in the physical world.
The “how” of making connections while you are reading is a little more nuanced. It will differ from person to person. It will differ based upon your own life experiences and the stories you use to interpret reality. The way to expand your own understanding is to nourish a mindset of curiosity and of continuous learning, but look beyond the bounds of your own time and space. The world has been in existence far longer than the past hundred years. The pandemic, as horrible as it has been and continue to be, has at least given us an opportunity to do a little exploration, if only from our computer screens. Art galleries are now more accessible than ever, books more accessible, movies more accessible. You can stream just about every form of entertainment known to man and find long-lost works which our grandfathers never even knew existed. How then do you begin?
Set yourself a challenge. Take your favorite book (or movie!) and try to find new ways to relate to it. Did the writer get inspiration from somewhere? Research their inspiration and find new books to read from that. Is that movie you like based on a legend? A myth? A basic storyline? Think about what you are reading and how it relates to you. Make notes, underline words, write in the margins, take a moment to look up what isn’t familiar. I can almost guarantee you will get transported back in time at some point and then beyond what you even knew existed. You may find yourself in a very different place from where you started. You may find a love of romantic comedy in the pages of a medieval text (spoiler alert: it does exist!!!!). You may find a story of overcoming suppression, repression, and despair in places you never thought to look in faraway lands you thought had nothing to do with you. You may even find the eyes of a kindred spirit looking back at you from a half-faded fresco.
To return to King Arthur for a moment, The Sword the Stone was especially eye opening because while the movie was based upon the book of the same name by T.H. White, the story of King Arthur
existed in many other different forms and I was more than happy to go exploring. Imagine my surprise then when Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” appeared in Anne of Green Gables and I discovered it was part of the Arthurian cycle too! I read the poem and then fell in love with the paintings by John Williams Waterhouse. Later, I read the writings of Bede the Venerable which have one of the earlier accounts of the Arthurian legend. So, in my exploration, I started in the 20th, went back to the 19th and ended up in the 8th. Talk about time travel!
Now, there are undoubtedly going to be some objections to the example I just gave. King Arthur is a very British figure and while he is known world-wide, there will be objections that he only represents a very small part of the world and much of the tales which tell of him are all from one specific region of the world and part of a specific cultural epoch. Aragorn and Beowulf for that matter also have their roots in the same time and place so comparisons are relatively natural. If you aren’t from that part of the world, or you don’t feel it represents your view of reality, the temptation may be to discard it entirely. Let me ask you this, then: does not the story of the great ruler who brought a golden age to his nation not resonate anywhere else in the world? Does not the story of the man who slew monsters? How about the boy born in exile who restores peace to the world after helping rid it of evil? Are there no stories like this to which you can relate? That is something you will need to answer for yourself as we go through. It’s a question I’ve had to learn to answer for myself in my own reading endeavors.
If you still aren’t sure, and you do not wish to explore those questions further, that is your choice. But then, dear reader, aren’t you rather limiting yourself?
That last question is one which we all must answer for ourselves at one time or another. Are we being painted into a box by our own limited views? Are we closing ourselves behind limiting beliefs which will only hinder us? These are questions we ask naturally in psychotherapy, self-healing, or self-improvement but they should be questions we consider when we are reading too. How we interact with what we are reading tells us a lot about ourselves. If we just skim a page, for instance, instead of really taking the time to consider the words and what they mean, what does that about us? Does it mean we’re just in a hurry all the time? Are we avoiding being uncomfortable with what we are reading? Are we just too tired and too overworked to care?
There are no fast answers to any of these questions. Nor are there easy ones. If these are questions you struggle with, then I would encourage you to allow yourself to enjoy the moment. Allow yourself to be present in what you are reading. Allow your mind to process the characters and their struggles. If it’s a different story than the one you tell yourself, allow yourself to pretend it’s your story for a while. If it’s not for you, then allow yourself to let it go. Part of my work in this blog is to get you familiar with stories which you might now know, character who you might not have met, and viewpoints which reflect a different reality than the one we face in the 20th century. If, in reading this blog, you decide some of those stories aren’t for you, then take heart. I’ve done that piece of the work for you, and you can move on. My hope and intention for your, however, is that you get inspired to go down your own rabbit hole like I did with King Arthur that you will go on your own adventure and find another part of yourself.
For years, I struggled to leave the British Isles in my love of reading. I still have distinct predilections for non-American English writers. I probably always will struggle slightly. But here and there I’ve found gems outside of my own limited leanings, some of which I will be sharing. I’m still adventuring and I’m still finding new things to read. I’ve ended up finding pieces of myself in medieval Florence, in post-Napoleonic Marseille, in 17th century La Mancha, and in worlds that don’t exist beyond the realm of fantasy.
Where will you find your missing pieces?