Books as Mirrors

A living work of art actually possesses a bare-bones practicality, indeed a utility, that we need to recover: it helps us toward a richer grasp of our own estate. What you find inside this mirror of life stories is an inexhaustible treasure house of “might-have-beens” and “might-bes,” a repertoire of scenarios showing how one moves through time, how one is made up of forces beyond one’s control and ken, how events form and deform us, how one becomes oneself, how that self responds to its pact with time and conducts its pas de deux with entropy and death. This is precious. A novel of two hundred pages may package a life of seventy years; yet a novel of two hundred pages requires a day or so to read, while a seventy-year life requires seventy years. Isn’t this one profound reason we read novels? Art makes life visible.

You might ask: How can a work of literature, especially one written centuries ago, possibly shed light on me: my experiences, my formation, my running story? It is a good question, and it has some good answers. Great art lives in a way that transcends its moment, reaching something more universal, gesturing toward life experiences that are at once time-bound and timeless. The proof behind this (ahistorical) assertion is embarrassingly simple: every time you read a book that speaks to you, that engages your mind and feelings, you are encountering the truth of art. This is an exchange of inestimable value: testimony of the past traveling across the bridge of time into you the reader, hence becoming, at some hard-to-define level, your own lived experience. We are a far cry from websites and databases. We are tapping into living scripts that are big with life, into a mother lode that will nourish and grow us.

When a friend of mine was once asked, “Do you know much about Shakespeare?” she answered, “Not as much as he knows about me.”

Arnold Weinstein, Morning, Noon, and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books, p. 6

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