There can be a loneliness in reading, because it is such a solitary act. Even in talking about books, it can be hard to accurately describe their affect, because how can soul-deep language be reduced to mere words?
There can be an aloneness in reading, too, in that one does it to be alone, or because they are alone. Things will not abandon you, Rilke says, and readers know this to be true. A large part of my reading life has been a means of escape from my daily life, a way of avoiding the fact that I cannot stop being lonely.
But as the saying goes, anywhere you go, there you are. It can be overwhelming to be unable to evade your own presence. Reading did not erase my emotions; it simply postponed them until the end of the book, or at best, gave them a hug in the form of paragraphs and plot.
Jesus promises an abundant life, but what does that mean when aloneness seems to be the opposite of abundance? Is there abundance in me? If I was actually on a desert island with my desert island book (East of Eden, of course), could I find a measure of happiness?
But what if aloneness is not entirely a bad thing? What if I stopped feeling unfulfilled because my life can be so easily reduced to books? My perspective has started shifting from one of escape to one of discovery. Reading can be a way of avoidance, but it also can be seen as a journey into my own inner life. Picking up a book is just dropping a bucket deep down into the well of myself.
Being alone with my books and the thoughts they spur is not a bad thing, because my mind is a fascinating place. It never stops working, analyzing and overanalyzing, pondering, imagining, connecting. Sure it can be exhausting, but it’s never boring.
And, as it turns out, the effect of all of this time spent alone has cultivated a greater empathy and compassion in myself. Knowing myself, flaws and foibles, helps me to see other people in theirs, and to recognize them for what they are – complicated humans.
As I immerse myself in worlds of other times and places, I learn about them, but them and other only exists as they are apart from me. And who am I, what is my time and place that sets me apart from them? Discovering that answer opens up an abundance of both worlds. And if we are open, we are changed for the better, becoming both more informed and more empathetic. I wonder if the reason Jesus was able to be so compassionate was because he was so intimately connected with his own humanity.
Loneliness is not the worst thing in the world. It does not have to be something pitiful that should be rectified. Being alone can be worth accepting and treasuring because in discovering these other worlds, I am discovering that my world is just as worthwhile. My inner life is just as rich for excavating, and in truly knowing ourselves, we are able to know other people. I’ve also found a deeper assurance in myself. The more we know and understand who we are in our deepest parts, the less vulnerable we are to being tossed about by the opinions of others. We can live fearlessly and freely, boldly and confidently, in knowing the abundance we contain and the abundance we have to offer the world.
Overwhelming though it can be, it is also reassuring that even in a world of loneliness, my self has never abandoned me. I have always been right here. Hidden from the world perhaps, but never from myself. We are solitary, Rilke also says, emphasizing the truth of it, and when I think of a life of words, this is comforting, because reading is such an interior activity, and in the end, I don’t read for anyone except myself.
The power of books is such that even in my loneliness and aloneness, I am not truly alone. I have the book and everything in it, and I have myself, and this turns out to be an abundance of good things.