A book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us,” Kafka wrote to his childhood friend just as he was setting out on a life of making and honing axes of words. I have always been struck by his metaphor — by both the glorious truth of its tenor and the horrific violence of its vehicle. A good book is indeed a profound transformation, and, yes, there can be violence to how it awakens us from the trance of near-life. Still, it is often a transformation of great subtlety and tenderness — an act of healing, a self-salvation, a self-creation. “Books and stories are medicine, plaster casts for broken lives and hearts, slings for weakened spirits,” Anne Lamott wrote in her lovely letter to children a century after Kafka. As a child, Jane Goodall read herself into her unexampled life. As a girl cusping into adulthood, Helen Fagin read herself alive through the Holocaust.
We read for countless reasons, and books transform us in numerous ways, reckoned and unreckoned. We read the way we live — with our whole selves, with the flickering constellation of values, longings, traumas, joys, hopes, despairs, formative experiences, and half-remembered impressions composing the self. We read with our whole being, but we also read ourselves into being as each book quietly reconfigures the constellation with its cosmogony of ideas and the emotional voyage on which it takes us so that we emerge from it a different self. That, too, is how love transforms us.
Jeanette Winterson — one of the finest writers and thinkers of our time, a maker of axes and lifelines welded and woven of words — takes up the subject of why we read, a matter on which a reader is tempted to think nothing novel could be said, with uncommon splendor of insight in the introduction to the Audible edition of her 1985 classic Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (public library).
Winterson begins where books begin — in the life and mind of the author, a fact so essential we have grown blind to its magic: How is it that a single person’s experience can become raw material for something that speaks to generations of strangers, something that shapes selves radically different from the author’s and each other’s? She considers what it takes to write from a deeply personal place in a way that bridges the abyssal divide between consciousnesses: