What's the Point?

I’ve read 26 Shakespeare plays, Moby-Dick and Middlemarch. What does that mean other than I was an English major in college?

When I was younger, I felt a responsibility to read everything. I thought I couldn’t be an adult if I hadn’t read Chaucer.

This isn’t so: I know plenty of adults who haven’t heard of the Canterbury Tales. It doesn’t mean anything that I’ve read all those books. I’m not a better person or any smarter for it. It’s just something I’ve done. At best, literature is good for small talk; at worst, it’s a distraction. But it’s something I do every day with unwavering interest. Why?

Well, firstly, I commute by train and I prefer reading to waiting for twenty minutes to pass while I stare at ugly New Yorkers. But there’s more to it than that.

When I was 16, I flew to Wyoming by myself to go on a month long hiking trip. It was the first time I ever flew alone and the first time I ever went hiking. My month in the wilderness would be miserable in a life affirming kind of way. Along with the bug bites and iodine water, one of the things I remember most about trip was reading George Orwell’s Collection of Essays in Salt Lake City International airport on a stopover on my way to Jackson Hole. It was 1999—George Orwell had been dead for 49 years—but I felt like we were having the best conversation of my life at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Restaurant. I didn’t know it then, but George Orwell would be the best friend I made that summer.

Everyone feels alone and awkward sometimes, but like the latest Jhumpha Lahiri short story, that doesn’t make for great conversation. Some authors just get what it’s like to be a person. With age, that sense of absolute connection I used to feel with writers has diminished. But the chance of finding someone who articulates something true about life keeps me reading. And failing that, it makes the subway ride go faster.