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Romanticizing the Reader

Monday 27 April 2015

By DIANE ACKERMAN APRIL 24, 2015

The best thing about a book tour is meeting your imagined readers, staring into their lamplit faces, hearing a little about their lives and, for a slender moment anyway, feeling the reciprocity of your trade.

Many of us write in a solitary mania, in a small room, while staring at blank sheets of paper or a blank screen. For years, we collect and preen a flock of fine-feathered thoughts. Then, through brain-numbing labor and a tiny dose of magic, the pages fill with meaningful words and phrases (until eye glaze sets in, and they become little more than word-birds perching on invisible wires).

I may feel satisfied or not when I finish a book, and I’ve no idea if what I’ve written will ever speak to anyone at all. It’s only much later that readers encounter my books. By that time, the long rapids of writing and rewriting are past, yet when we meet, time’s sliding panels touch. We’re already acquaintances. I may have heard from readers online, or a publisher may replace the whistle-stop, rumpled-clothes, pen-at-the-ready book tour with the budget Internet variety, but it’s not the same as meeting someone in person: The voice and face convey a panoply of emotions words miss; we sample and fathom the world best with all of our senses in play.

The meeting is lopsided, of course. Having read your books, readers know you far better than you know them — except that authors aren’t always their books. An author’s gift may shine like the sun and his “self” be a wen of tackiness and intolerance. The public self may be the best he can rise to, in privileged moments, and the off-duty self a martinet, bully or emotional tightwad. One can find “pages of illustrations,” to quote Wallace Stevens (who, incidentally, liked telling garden visitors the cost of each flower bulb).

No, writers aren’t always their books, but many are. I really am — I’m fascinated by nature and the human pageant, and no stranger to heartbreak — but they’re not all of me. And just as the author romanticizes the reader, so does the reader romanticize the author — there’s something inevitable and touchingly human about it all. Many years ago, at a book signing, a reader said she wanted to be me because she felt that her own life was so drab. My heart sank like wet sand. The writer’s life can seem glamorous, but mine certainly wasn’t.

Nearly every author I know imagines one or more readers while writing a book. It’s a bloom of creative telepathy. The reader is a part of yourself, held at a distance, and becomes an important sounding board for the tone and language of the pages, an intimate ally. Readers and writers provide a kind of outside family for one another.

Anne Lamott tells of writing books that “began as presents to people I loved who were going to die.” My own ideal reader has evolved over the years. In the beginning I often wrote with one person in mind, a sort of kindred soul. Now I imagine a motley crew: loved ones and book mavens, friends and strangers and gorgeous stylists (William Gass and Mary Oliver will do).

Still, many authors claim to write just for themselves, though no one has said it quite as misanthropically as Gustave Flaubert: “Better to work for yourself alone. You do as you like and follow your own ideas, you admire yourself and please yourself: Isn’t that the main thing? And then the public is so stupid. Besides, who reads? And what do they read? And what do they admire?”

I prefer Paul Theroux’s vivid fancy of reader as collaborator, his conceit that when we read a book, we stain it with our memories and desires. “Reading alters the appearance of a book,” he writes in “The Old Patagonian Express.”  “People leave their individual imprint on a book they have read. One of the pleasures of reading is seeing this alteration on the pages,” and how, “by reading it, you have made the book yours.” As an author and reader, I like the idea of reading as an indelible spice that transforms a book while the book transforms you. No man is an island, as John Donne said, especially now, but sometimes we are peninsulas in a common sea.

Returning home from a book tour, I slip from the public realm back into the private, and then one day I wake to find the well of nature unusually full, the human spectacle at full tilt, the real faces of readers an imagined audience once more. And although I haven’t the faintest idea of how it happened, somehow, to my great surprise, I seem to be coming down with a book.

Diane Ackerman is the author, most recently, of “The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us.”

A version of this article appears in print on April 26, 2015, on page BR29 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Romanticizing the Reader.

See online: Romanticizing the Reader