It is a rare thing, but when it happens you feel such a rush that like a junkie, you try and try again to get sensation back- that out of body, existential, life affirming sensation of connecting. Every book we hold in our hands holds a promise, a hope. We walk into a library or a book store with the expectation that we will find something that speaks to us in the way that only a handful of books may have truly done before. Although we don’t speak it, or even acknowledge it to ourselves as we are browsing, we are searching for that book, that character or even a thought that lets us know that we are not alone.
Of the hundreds of books I have read, I truly remember very little. I may recognize titles or plots. I may recall themes or characters. But how many of us can remember a quote, a fantastic line or idea, a powerful image, from even half of the books that we read? We may have enjoyed them at the time, but to be honest, they didn’t have what it takes to last. If it didn’t last in your memory, it will not survive in history’s memory. But there are those that continue to creep into our minds.
Years after reading, I am vividly struck with the image of Catherine-wild and free upon the moors. It comes back to me as I watch the winter storms coming in across the corn fields. It may be far from Great Britain but an imagination can find similarities in the most unlikely of places. I remember distinctly her belief that her and Heathcliff’s soul were the same. Just as the connection between them was not severed in death, neither was my connection to their story.
What was it about that book that causes it to keep coming back to me, seeping into my life, finding connections in the most mundane situations? My life is as different from Catherine and Heathcliff’s as possible, and yet I still find myself relating, connecting. I think it is no coincidence that those books that most often come back to us in these ways are those typically considered classics or soon to be classics.
Considering this, I began thinking of the shared experience I have with several books that have had the same effect upon me. Books as diverse as A Wrinkle in Time and the poems of Andrew Marvel, they had little in common except the fact that I can’t quite get them out of my mind. I remember reading them and with each of these stories I vividly recall a sigh of recognition as I read. These were stories I felt as though I had read before. Thoughts I had had before. Not even thoughts- feelings. Sensations. A knowing. A belief. A truth.
Every so often we come across something that connects to us deep within, like a spiritual deja vu. We feel as if we have thought this thought before, though I don’t believe I ever was as insightful as Henry James. However, you can’t help but think to yourself There! That is it! That is what I have always known to be true. Though to be honest, I may never have done any such thing. Im not in the habit of contemplating the mysteries of human existence or the meaning of the universe but every so often I encounter a writer who makes me feel as if I am.
Perhaps that is why these books are classics. I cannot be the only one to have felt this connection. They say classics stand the test of time. They do not exist in a single era, but apply to the human condition throughout time. These truths, the secret knowledge that I have found within my favorite works- these are the things that others experiencing as well.
We read to find ourselves. Slowly but surely, we piece ourselves together, discovering the picture as we go. We find a bit here in Jane Austen, and some over there in Dostoyevsky. In a way, we are made up of the authors that we read. In the popular culture of individualism it is easy to forget that you are not just finding yourself, but in those stories you are finding another who had the same truth as you.
In that moment- that surge of recognition when you find an idea that connects with you and your truth- we may overlook that it is not just in having the concept named, put into words, that fills us with such exaltation, but it is in finding verification that we are not alone in this thought. The fact that you have found it there in print is proof that another feels the same as you. Jane Austen may have lived hundreds of years ago but she has a cult following proving that her individual truth did not die with her. Those classics that we read are not just remembered for the quality of writing but for the bit of ourselves we find within them. They stand the test of time because they are not just a bit of yourself, but a bit of all of us.
It is because of this proof of connectivity, the glimpse of universal understanding that drives us to continue reading. Don’t read just to know. Read to find yourself. Read to connect.
The concept of a collective unconscious at times seems like little more than philosophical nonsense, but at those moments when you experience that spiritual high, can you really say you don’t feel it?