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When I was growing up, I had a poster on my wall that featured a cat on top of a stack of books and read, “The one who makes friends with books will never be alone.”
Cats. Books. What more could I want? I was happy with my poster, and I knew its declaration to be true, though at that time, I didn’t quite understand why it was true. Countless books (and several cats) later, I’ve gained a little wisdom about this particular truth.
Reading books, whether for learning, escape, or the simple pleasure of ingesting the words on the page, has the power to satisfy and stimulate curiosity. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back after (and even during) my reading to investigate some word or concept or another book I encountered within a narrative—fictional or otherwise.
My investigation opens up a new “side quest” of wandering and wondering. Just as I tend to get lost while driving, I also get lost while reading. And because I’m curious by nature, neither situation bothers me. It often excites me; whether lost in the mountains or the library, either is a chance to find something new.
There’s also the chance of meeting someone new when getting lost in a book. Sometimes we find a new “tribe,” a group of people (or just one person) happy to geek out about the same books, characters, events, or genre that we do. Other times the characters on the page speak to something inside of us, telling a story that resonates with us. Sometimes we relate to the people in a story and recognize that we are not alone. Other times we see perspectives we hadn’t considered before.
Joyce Carol Oates said, “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” Reading shows us how others have received and responded to circumstances we may or may not have experienced ourselves. Even in a story set in an alternate reality, we often find reflections of our existence echoed by the people we’ve met and known, which can lead us to new perceptions of our world.
Reading is a way of satisfying our curiosity by intentionally engaging others’ stories. In her book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn McEntyre reflects on “curiosity as a form of compassion.” She describes compassionate curiosity as “open-ended, patient, humble, and generous.”
I’ve held onto this concept since I first read these words in the fall of 2015, during my first semester of seminary. I recognized that my love of stories, both in fiction and in person, had the potential to be a pastoral gift, not only for myself but for others as well. Listening openly, patiently, humbly, and generously to others’ stories was as crucial as reading Hebrew, interpreting scripture, leading a Bible study, or preaching a sermon.
Even though we may read in solitude and silence, that’s often one of the attractions of reading: it’s a solitary activity—we are not alone when we read. We’re part of a community of readers, writers, listeners, learners, teachers, wonderers, and wanderers. By opening books and listening to their stories, we engage a community with curiosity that’s hardwired into our humanity, pointing us to untold common pathways of connection.