I said this on a podcast (in a podcast? This is a very new world for me) recently, and when I said it, it rang with more truth than I could articulate at the time. I hope to parse it out more productively here.
Reading has always served a cultural purpose, preserving our past and providing a way for us not to repeat mistakes. We read to remember how wars began, in hopes that we can avoid more. We read to remember our cultural history when we read fairy tales or myths, but also biography and history. Biography tells us one woman’s story; folklore tells us Everyman’s.
When I teach literature and folklore, students are delighted (or aghast) to find themselves in these stories. I taught the medieval German epic The Nibelungenlied a few years ago, and we talked not only about the obvious influences on works like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, but also the repetition of political dramas relevant to the upheaval in the Ukraine at the time (2014). We read to feel connected and understood when the world seems chaotic beyond measure. Because more than likely, we’ve been here before.
Those are big, sweeping reasons to read to remember. There are more personal ones, of course. We read to remember people we knew and loved. There are lots of books that remind me of my parents—mom loved biographies and romances; dad loved historical fiction, especially set in World War II, and he idolized Frank Lloyd Wright. Every time I pick up a biography I think of my mom because I argued with her for years about their usefulness. I loved to read stories, but true lives held no interest. The older I get, the more interesting people are to me, though, and I know she’d be tickled by that. I still don’t find myself tripping through World War II novels, but every time I read about some new building or, let’s face it—any time there’s any significant structure in a book I’m reading, I read it like an architect’s daughter, and I remember his lessons and esthetics.
That seems pretty personal, but I think the most important reason we read to remember is even more intimate. We read to remember who we were. When we read a book we’ve read before, part of our experience is remembering what we thought the first time—where we were; if someone had made us read it and whether that colored our encounter; and we even find parts of our identity that may have changed radically since then—nearly forgotten past selves—until we dig them up like archaeologists of the soul.
This happens to everyone every time we read books that take us back. But since I had fifteen years of reading to my kids, and since I sometimes teach Children’s Literature, it means the most to me when I reread a children’s book I’ve loved. It’s one thing to read 100 Years of Solitude at 20 and then 30, but it’s quite a different experience to read “The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes” and be able to pinpoint the moment it first occurred to you that women could be something other than mothers. I was little. That was huge. Reading it to my Children’s Lit class was both a return to my youth and a call to arms for the next generation. Reading it to my daughter was a homecoming. I watched her face. I looked for sparks. And I rolled around in the images and ideas, bouncing back and forth between child-me and mommy-me, feeling all the goodness and love important ideas and charming stories fill us with.
Because that’s what it’s about. Feelings. We read to feel, so we can read to remember how we felt. This could be a book that reminds us of a particular person or a time in our lives, or it could be the book just makes us feel great, and we read to capture that feeling again and again.
We read to remember how we feel, how we felt, where we came from, whom we love, who we were. We read to become ourselves.
(The podcast I refer to was a conversation with the brilliant and gracious Steve Zelt, and can be found, if you’re a listening type of person, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQmIDJH2E54)