The Art of Reading in Public
Rico Lighthouse on empathy, gentleness, and communion
The following is a guest essay by Rico Lighthouse, Perelandra’s very first Reader in Residence. In many ways, Rico was the molten core around which the residency formed; after reading this dispatch, you’ll understand why. May his words bring you solace and courage, as they do for me. — Joe
“Now and then, when I look round on my books, they seem to waver as if a wind rippled their solid mass, and another world were about to break through.” — George MacDonald, Lilith (1895)
I get excited when I see people reading a book, the same way others get excited when they see someone’s dog. I want to approach them and strike up a conversation, yet I also want to leave them alone and let them read. I know immediately, without ever having met the person, that we have something in common, something that goes beneath the surface of our personalities.
Reading a book in public demands a lot from us. Contrary to appearances, it is not a passive endeavor. Books first have to be acquired. They have to be toted around. They have mass and take up space. They are twice as big open as they are closed. Books take time to read, requiring the exercise of memory, the active recall of what's been previously read. In other words, books require a sacrifice. Our time, attention, and physical space must be devoted to them.
Reading in public is different than reading in solitude. Though it is a solitary act, you are inviting the community around you to participate. It requires a certain exercise in mental focus. A book is a doorway between two worlds, and reading in public is the art of navigating between those two worlds. Books have the ability to capture our attention so completely that we forget where we are, at least temporarily. We can become so absorbed in what we're reading that we catch nothing of the conversation going on around us. While we may be anchored to a chair, our minds are in another world, the world of the book. You forget, for a moment, who, what, and where you are.
You pause, close the book, catch your breath, take a drink. Catch snippets of the world around you. The formation of clouds, the passing of cars, the cry of birds. Your mind reorients itself to where you’re sitting. You start to make sense of the bits of conversation going on around you, bits that mingle with the thoughts formed by what you’re reading, and the ongoing thread of your own thoughts, which mixes up with the whole of your life experience. What you discover is something new. New thoughts, new ideas, that didn’t exist before you made the choice to show up with a book.
Then, just as quick as you came out of it, you dip your head down into the book, and it’s back into the other world you go. There’s an exchange taking place here, do you see it? You give your time and your physical being to reading, and the author's experience becomes your own. Whether it’s building a greenhouse, playing Quidditch, or traveling across America with Sal Paradise, the experience enriches you. It becomes part of you. Reading allows you to look at the world through another person’s eyes, through the lens of someone whose life is vastly different from your own. You have grown. The person who finishes a book is never the same as the person who started it.
Then someone comes along and says “What are you reading?” You’re pulled out of the other world and back into your own. You get to share your experience with someone else, forming or deepening a relationship. It’s a very humanizing thing to read in public, and I encourage you to give it a try. It opens you up to conversations you would not have otherwise had. It lets you know that there are other ways to live. That there are other people, other places, other cultures, other worlds than yours. It connects us across both time and space to people we will never meet. It tells us that life really is an adventure. That there is a beginning and an end, and that the choices we make matter.
Just as reading in public invites conversation, it also invites silence. Reading invites people to sit down with you and not speak. In a world super-saturated with noise, sitting with someone in silence can be quite refreshing. There's a bonding that happens, a mutual respect between two people reading. You know that like yourself, they too are standing in a doorway between two worlds, and you are careful not to yank them out of that doorway too suddenly, too violently. It encourages gentleness. And when you share your experiences about what you're reading, what you’re thinking, it’s like two travelers sharing their adventures. More than just idle conversation, it is a sacred journey, a meeting of two souls unadorned. Often this takes place with no words at all. With nothing more than a meeting of the eyes.
Reading in public is also an act of resistance. Against a world that increasingly demands more and more of our time, attention, and resources, with precious little given in return, reading a book is a way of disconnecting and reevaluating who you are. It’s a way of saying I will not be just another number in a database. I will not think the thoughts a digital world tells me to think; the same thoughts that millions of others are thinking. I will go at my own pace. I will read fast, I will read slow. I will be nostalgic for the past. I will carry books with me into the future. I will be an example for those who’d rather read than have their brains sucked out through a screen. I will be inspired. I will live. I will smell the pages and imagine all the history in the old books. I will give thanks for the people and presses printing new ones. I will look up and smile at those who say to me “I didn't know people still read books.” I will revisit old thoughts and think new ones. With a book in my bag everywhere I go, I will read.
Further reading: Meaning is what surrounds | Rico Lighthouse (2022)