Francisco Contreras – Unabashedly Skeptical

"The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks." –Christopher Hitchens

Why Books?

Most of my life I’ve had a very personal relationship with books. Ever since I discovered what reading a good book felt like, -my “good book” virginity was broken by Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass-, I have not stopped engaging in this magical activity.  Dickens, Carroll, Dickinson ,Whitman and others have all been by my side in the darkest and the brightest moments of my life; so much so that all of the most significant experiences in my life, even those that have seemingly nothing to do with reading books, –ie going camping for the first time, the death of my first dog, living in a different country–  have been augmented, explained, and given life by what I was reading at the time.

For instance, I remember the first time I went kayaking and reached a secluded section of the lake and became awestruck by the landscape  that surrounded me. The experience was visceral and had me feeling  things I’d never felt before. These feelings were so complex and unusual that I couldn’t hope and didn’t dare to try to explain what it was about the landscape that inspired this intense reaction. However, in that moment I remembered a poem that I had read a few days before. The poem was “There is Pleasure in the Pathless Woods” by Lord Byron.  


There is pleasure in the pathless woods

There is rapture on the lonely shore

There is society where none intrudes

By the deep sea and the music in its roar


I love not man the less but Nature more;

From all these interviews in which I steal

From all I may be or have been before

To mingle with the universe and feel,

What I can never express, yet cannot conceal.

Lord Byron felt exactly the same way I felt when I looked at the landscape. I don’t know what he saw or when he saw it, but I knew he felt exactly the same way I did. He had to. The fact that he was able to somehow capture what I was feeling and put it in words made my experience intelligible, and in a sense more tangible. Nature had given me that wonderful experience and now I was able to catalog it in my mind through the words of Byron.  All my life I’ve  been having similar experiences. Books and poems have helped me discover who am I am and have given me the words to describe how I feel.  But why?

Surely writing is merely a medium to communicate one’s thoughts, in a sense no different from speaking or having a conversation. So why is it that reading a good book feels much different than having a good conversation? Why do books seem to be especially effective at capturing the intricacies of human experience?  Why are they able to strip away the distractions of the outside world and provide an internal dialogue that is vulnerable, honest, and intimate? Why do books seem to be able to uniquely harness the power of careful deliberation?

Is it because books give us the benefit of revision? The promise of permanence? The comforting cloak of solitude and anonymity?



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