A Book Is a Heart That Only Beats in the Chest of Another: Rebecca Solnit on the Solitary Intimacy of Reading and Writing
“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed.”
By Maria Popova
“Learning how to be a good reader is what makes you a writer,” the magnificent Zadie Smith told the audience at the 15th annual New Yorker Festival on a late Friday night, echoing Susan Sontag’s assertion that fruitful writing is born out of fruitful reading, out of a “book-drunken life.” This osmotic relationship between reading and writing has been extolled in forms as piercingly poetic as Kafka’s letter on the purpose of books and as scientifically grounded as the work of Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, but hardly anyone has expressed it more lyrically and with more shimmering aliveness than another of our era’s greatest essayists, Rebecca Solnit, in The Faraway Nearby (public library) — the equally, if differently, rewarding follow-up to her spectacular essay collection A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
In the fourth of the book’s thirteen extraordinary essays, titled “Flight,” Solnit writes:
Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.
Solnit recounts how, as a child, she “took up imaginative residence for many years” in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia — one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, the enduring appeal of which is, perhaps paradoxically, a testament to Lewis’s own assertion that there is actually no such thing as writing “for children.” Indeed, Solnit affirms Lewis’s point obliquely, elegantly, by seeing in his classic, as in children’s books in general, a sandbox for precisely the solitary intimacy that all reading requires:
These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtences we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time.
It seems almost vulgar to strip Solnit’s writing of its lyrical specificity, to excerpt only the resounding wisdom of her universals, at which she arrives through the intricate observation of particulars — palpable childhood memories, meticulously chosen vignettes from history, allegorical anecdotes. So with the caveat that one ought to read her complete essay, the entire anthology even, to fully devour the fruits of her exceptional mind, I return nonetheless to Solnit’s masterful articulation of the universal:
The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. The child I once was read constantly and hardly spoke, because she was ambivalent about the merits of communication, about the risks of being mocked or punished or exposed. The idea of being understood and encouraged, of recognizing herself in another, of affirmation, had hardly occurred to her and neither had the idea that she had something to give others. So she read, taking in words in huge quantities, a children’s and then an adult’s novel a day for many years, seven books a week or so, gorging on books, fasting on speech, carrying piles of books home from the library.
Of libraries, she writes:
Libraries are sanctuaries from the world and command centers onto it.
In a poetic counterpoint to Susan Sontag, who famously read for eight to ten hours a day for the majority of her life and who once observed that “one can never be alone enough to write,” Solnit considers a different aspect of the relationship between writing and the silence of solitude:
Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?
I had started out in silence, written as quietly as I had read, and then eventually people read some of what I had written, and some of the readers entered my world or drew me into theirs. I started out in silence and traveled until I arrived at a voice that was heard far away — first the silent voice that can only be read, and then I was asked to speak aloud and to read aloud. When I began to read aloud another voice, one I hardly recognized, emerged from my mouth. Maybe it was more relaxed, because writing is speaking to no one, and even when you’re reading to a crowd, you’re still in that conversation with the absent, the faraway, the not-yet-born, the unknown and the long-gone for whom writers write, the crowd of the absent who hover all around the desk.
The Faraway Nearby is an infinitely rewarding — unsummarizably so. Complement it with this wonderful animated essay on what books do for the soul, then revisit Solnit on how we find ourselves and the color of distance and desire.