The Concession of Reading

“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin

Yesterday I wrote a post comparing the activity of reading to the activity of eating. One of my central claims was that reading is to the mind what eating is to the body.

After thinking about this a bit more, I realized that there’s a concession we all make when we choose to eat food. Whenever a person chooses to eat, they are making the following confession:

I acknowledge that my body is not capable of manufacturing all the nutrients it needs to sustain itself. As wonderful as my body is, I will not be able to survive unless I engage the outside world, obtain food from this world, and consistently consume substances that were produced from a source other than my body.

Imagine what it would sound like for a person who refused to make this concession. They would need to say something along the following lines:

I don’t eat food. I don’t need to. My body manufactures all the nutrients I need to survive on its own. Whenever I need energy or hydration, I close my eyes and meditate. Instead of focusing on stuff like water, protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and micronutrients, I simply choose to believe in my own powers.

Such words might be fitting for a Marvel Comics superhero, but no one ever says these kinds of things because we understand that our bodies need more than what they’re capable of producing on their own. This is the concession of eating. It’s the recognition that there’s nothing bad about the fact that we need the outside world in order to survive and grow.

I would argue that the same is true for reading.

As wonderful as it is to engage in contemplation, meditation, or other internally driven practices, we need to go outside of our own individuality and engage the perspectives and experiences of other people if we want to survive and grow. Refusing to read because of a belief that your mind is capable of generating all the ideas it needs is like refusing to eat because of a belief that your body is capable of generating all the nutrients it needs.

As human beings, we are ecological creatures. We live in a state of interdependence with all other living beings. And that’s a beautiful thing. In order to truly fulfill our potential, it’s absolutely vital that we make regular time for allowing our minds to be stimulated and inspired by something other than its own ideas.

This is the concession of reading. And it’s a concession that never leads to loss.

At least that’s the way I see it.