Reading Between the Lines

A tale, fictitious or otherwise, illuminates truth.  Jalaluddin Rumi

Reading is fundamental to living in our society, to meeting the demands of everyday life and to discovering the magic contained within books. Yet in this increasingly fast paced, hi-tech society we run the risk of losold booking that magic. We have become impatient, finding ourselves drawn to abbreviations rather than elaborations. Facebook and twitter reduce our news to paragraphs and sentences respectively, micro-fiction is blossoming, the pace of our stories is increasing, as is the speed with which they are delivered, until there is little time for contemplation, for pausing over a beautiful passage in a story, for allowing stories to seep into us and change us from within. And yet stories are vital. More than mere entertainment, they tell us who we are and they help us to find ourselves.

As Ralph Waldo Emmerson once said, ‘I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.’ Each of us is the product of the stories we tell ourselves, the stories our culture, our society, our family, our friends, our teachers, our filmmakers and our authors tell us. Story is what forms our identity and our opinions. But stories can do something else too. They can be truly revolutionary. When we read heroic myths, or novels which tell of the coming of age of a character, then we find that these stories can also help to free us from an identity that has been constructed by others and to see through the ideology in which we are immersed. Reading can and should help us to learn how to live as individuals within society, by encouraging us to reach inwards and explore ourselves and showing us how to reach out and connect with others.

Books are the bees which carry the quickening pollen from one to another mind.  James Russell Lowell

Our imagination is a vital part of each of us. It is what makes us human, enabling us to experience events and emotions we might not normally experience, to reflect, to find commonality with others and thus understand ourselves. And most importantly, our imagination is what allows us to step into the shoes of others and so develop empathy. For as Joyce Carole Oates once wrote, reading helps us to ‘slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul,’  A tool, a toy, a gift and a responsibility, the imagination is something which must be developed and nurtured, not ignored or stifled. Reading is a collaborative effort between the author and the reader, allowing the reader to use his or her imagination to bring a story to life. Hence, our frequent disappointment with film adaptations of novels, which rarely come close to the extraordinary world or the characters we have already created in our imaginations from reading the novel. For as Stephen King wrote in On Writing, ‘description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

If the stories we tell ourselves, and the way in which we use our imaginations play a role in creating who we are, then it might not be enough to simply encourage reading, we might also need to consider what we choose to read and how we read.  At present, many of our stories, across much of our media, celebrate violence and cynicism, anger and betrayal. A premium, it seems, is placed on ugliness, and stories that ‘tell it how it is’ receive accolades from critics. There is much that is ugly and violent in this world and much of it needs telling, but from chaos and pain it is possible, through story, to create harmony and peace. Why are we so afraid to tell stories that explore love and compassion and hope? Why do we so often deride them? If story can change us, then it can also change the world, so perhaps we should also be writing and reading stories that are optimistic, that ‘tell it how it might be’ instead of ‘how it is’. Franz Kafka once wrote that ‘a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us’. These are the kinds of stories that I search for as a reader and the ones I seek to write. Stories should stay with us, should linger in our conscious and unconscious selves, working their magic even after we have finished with their writing, or their reading.

And as to how we read? Stories can be unifying, building bridges between people but they can also build fences, creating dangerous ‘us and them’ distinctions. Divisions are built when we read stories literally rather than metaphorically, when we skim the surface of a story rather than peer into its depths; when we criticise or value a book for its language and miss the beauty and purpose of its story; and when we dismiss a memoir because it is not entirely factual, missing the powerful emotional journey the writer has taken us on. Perhaps it’s time to once more step beyond the limitations of the currently predominant story of science and rationality. Instead of insisting on the distinction between fact and fiction, or denigrating myth as false, we might then allow ourselves to read more deeply, exploring the nature of truth. For not all truth is measurable. As Maya Angelou writes, ‘There’s a world of difference between truth and fact. Fact tells us the data. . . but facts can obscure the truth.’

9 comments

  1. As a peace journalist and storytelling author, I really appreciated your piece on Reading Between the Lines. I agree totally with your comments about the value of stories and how they can be revolutionary and that we need to tell more of the positive stories unfolding everyday in our culture. That’s what peace journalism is about. You have inspired me to re-connect with you about our common interests.
    Stories also can be powerful tools for building community and fostering positive social change. It’s been said that whomever tells the stories, defines the culture. I agree with Emerson that “stories are vital that they tell us who we we are and help us to find ourselves, and that each of us is the products of the stories we tell to others. I have been gathering, writing and publishing the inspiring stories of everyday heroes called compassionate rebels, most recently in my book: The Compassionate Rebel Revolution:Ordinary People Changing the World, which is accompanied by video interviews and an educator’s guide. I would welcome the opportunity to share my work with the Centre for Story or anyone else who is interested in discovering the magic of compelling personal stories. I believe that everyone has a compassionate rebel story waiting to be told. I a welcome new stories that anyone wants to share as well as your experiences with the power of story. I am currently contributing to an anthology of turning point stories that will be published soon and is continuing to look for contributions for future volumes.

    Please check out my website at http://www.compassionaterebel,com to get more information, find the book in paperback or e-book format, watch an eight-minute video clip and let me know how we can best connect with each other to promote the power of story.

    Thanks.

    Burt

    I

    1. Thanks for your response, Burt. I love the term ‘peace journalist’. And the anthology sounds interesting. Let me know when it is published and I will list it here.

      1. Hi Rosie,

        Thanks for responding to my post and offering to promote the anthology that is currently in progress. I will let you know when it is published. In the meantime, could you list my current published book: The Compassionate Rebel Revolution: Ordinary People Changing the World which is an example of peace journalism and storytelling for social change. You can link to the book at my website: http://www.compassionaterebel.com. To find out more about my work as a peace journalist go to the online article I had published in the October 2015 issue of the Peace Journalist.

        I appreciate your interest and the great work you are doing at the Centre for Story and look forward to continuing our communication.

        Peace and best wishes,

        Burt
        I

  2. I am reminded that as some writers say, ‘the devil is in the detail’. If we, as writers do not apply ourselves to reading – whether for entertainment, to sate curiosity, to further examine self and other, in pursuit of further knowledge and understanding through research and reason, revelation and the insights gained, then how can any readership desire a deeper experiential reading (of a short story, play, poetry, novel etc)?
    ‘I want it and I want it now!’ detracts from the experience itself, from the process of reading, which also involves interpretation – and both need time – as for the writer, so for the reader.
    I am interested in different ways of reading; different ways of experiencing reading. For instance, I have often thought and sometimes said, ‘I used to read a lot before I embarked upon my academic journey…I sometimes read 4-5 books (novels) a day…but since I have been studying, I’m lucky to read one book a year (I exaggerate for the purpose of this reply).’
    However, as I considered the nature of my reading, and looked more closely, I realised that I do infact read more – I plough through a vast expanse, an ocean of literature – and a host of diiferent types of writing (and therefore reading). It is not that I read less. I read more. What I have discovered is that not only do I read more, but I read more closely. I gain greater insights and more understanding of what I read. That is, everything I read – from newspapers, to magazines, journals, short stories, poetry, novellas, novels, plays – even signs, or that dreaded ‘small print’, blurbs and so on – comes to life as I read works handed over by the author of a wide and diverse ocean of writing.
    The magic is in giving one’s self over to the text, to appreciating the art of the text and the ways in which the story is written by the writer, and as told by the narrator -.
    Life itself becomes richer, and more meaningful on a day-to-day, if not moment-by-moment basis as the reader-writer experience the ‘blossoming’ of ‘elaborations’; the grasping of story, the contemplative and reflective ‘pausing over a beautiful passage in a story’ and ‘for allowing stories to seep into us and change us from within’ (Dub April 8, 2006).
    Humans think in pictures and pictures or images are created by carefully crafted stories that come alive in the readers’ minds as reading pace is slowed to an appreciation through focussed reading that wants to know more about the content of stories we engage with – who really is this character? What is their real motive (thought behind thought to be enacted along the way, the intention behind the action etc) for wanting to achieve a certain goal?
    What, really, is the purpose behind this particular story? Do we, as readers like the character? What do we hope is the outcome and so on? Do we care? Does it matter?
    As I look back at books I have read within a short space of time, I know now as I knew then, that I would have liked to have had more time to allow both the characters and story to sink in deeper – I have since reread such books that presented me with characters and stories I not only cared deeply about but wanted to know more about – get a better picture and grasp of…these characters live and breathe in me as they leap from the page and journey through story – they are also with me as I consider other texts that I come across /read and even as I look deep within at my own life and consider my life’s journeying…they, in turn, contribute to my ongoing growth and development as both a writer and person…
    Readers are enriched by the characters they encounter and the stories they enter into…
    I drive along the highway and suddenly, there is a character up ahead or sitting beside me – it could be a character I have not recalled for sometime; it could be a character driving a highway in search of the unexpected on another highway in another time and place – readers and writers live and breathe story in the crafting, in the telling, in the writing and in the reading – .
    There are times when I realise, too, that I have another writer, another character to thank for my life, today.
    Read.
    Get to know what lies between the covers, and who is imbedded in story – love what you read and who you meet between the pages. Allow your imagination to run free as indeed you would want to do in life.
    While we may not remember every book we have read, I have found that books are like memory and pop up all over the place – what triggers recollection of a good book you may have read? Did someone lend you a copy of a particular book? Is a book from your school years impressed upon you? Did you see or hear something that reminded you of a specific book? Character? Quote from a text you once read? Or that has stayed with you? Explore it deeper.
    “Each of us is the product of the stories we tell ourselves, the stories our culture, our society, our family, our friends, our teachers, our filmmakers and our authors tell us. Story is what forms our identity and our opinions. But stories can do something else too. They can be truly revolutionary.” (Dub 8 April 2016).
    They light the way.
    Read.

    1. Thank you for such a considered and beautifully written response. Yes indeed, stories can and should ‘light the way’ for us but only if we remain open to their guidance.

      1. Thankyou Rosie,

        The idea of opening and being open /remaining open to stories is food for thought.
        I stand infront of my bookshelves and consider the titles. At some point I select a book – a novel or some short stories,perhaps. I wonder, What is my response to this or that story now? With time and reading past?
        I open the covers, flick through from front to back, skim the blurb and return to the content, sit down and begin reading.
        I am aware if being more open to the story and seeing more clearly as the story itself opens to me – invites if not lures and ropes me in.
        I am guided on long after I emerge from story….

      2. Also, would you -time permitting- expound upon Kafka’s axe and frozen sea?
        My initial understanding if this was that story needs to cut through the illusion, to knock us out of an otherwise opiate existence -.
        Burt’s peace journalism is interesting.
        Burt,does this incorporate ahisma? I particularly like “compassion”.
        I look forward to reading your work.
        You have both given me some great stimuli. Thanks.

        1. Hi there. I imagine Kafka’s quote can be interpreted in a number of ways and I’m not entirely comfortable with trying to pin it down. I have always seen it as referring to the fact that stories should work on us from within, breaking our hearts open so that we are finally able to see the world in a fresh way. That a story should act upon us, helping us to understand something in a way that is not purely intellectual, and not simply reinforcing the limitations we already embrace.

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