In his brief, memorable novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid reminds us of the true relationship between readers and writers.
Like all books, this…book is a co-creative project. When you watch a TV show or movie, what you see looks like what it physically represents. A man looks like a man, a man with a large bicep looks like a man with a large bicep, and a man with a large bicep bearing the tattoo “Mama” looks like a man with a large bicep bearing the tattoo “Mama.”
But when you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood or, increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen. To transform these icons into characters and events, you must imagine. And when you imagine, you create. It’s in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings a book becomes one of a million different books, just as an egg becomes one of potentially a million different people when it’s approached by a hard-swimming and frisky school of sperm.
Readers don’t work for writers. They work for themselves. Therein, if you’ll excuse the admittedly biased tone, lies the richness of reading.
I first got a crush on Hamid when I read “Get Fit With Haruki Murakami: Why Mohsin Hamid Exercises, Then Writes“ in The Atlantic. Like Hamid, I was inspired by Murakami’s essay and book on racing his way to the end of his long manuscripts, and I was amused by Hamid’s notion that because he writes shorter books than Murakami, walking suffices to bring him to his finish lines. I see him sailing through, face alight, arms spread wide, tape breaking across his chest, face…but all at a sane, moderate pace. Sane, moderate, and profound. Here, in two short paragraphs, he explains why we read, why we write, and in a few poetic lines elucidates what studies are now proving: reading fiction makes people—children, adults—more empathetic. As, apparently, do field trips to cultural institutions. Support the arts, my friends.
We are all refugees from our childhoods. And so we turn, among other things, to stories. To write a story, to read a story, is to be a refugee from the state of refugees. Writers and readers seek a solution to the problem that time passes, that those who have gone are gone and those who will go, which is to say every one of us, will go. For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible. But in between we can create.
As you create this story and I create this story, I would like to ask you how things were. I would like to ask you about the person who held your hand when dust entered your eye or ran with you from the rain. I would like to tarry here awhile with you, or if tarrying is impossible, to transcend my here, with your permission, in your creation, so tantalizing to me and so unknown. That I can’t do this doesn’t stop me from imagining it. And how strange that when I imagine, I feel. The capacity for empathy is a funny thing.