Reading is, by definition, an act of interpretation. When we were children, most of us learned how to decipher our culture’s chosen symbols, forming meaning from the infinite combinations of letters (or characters, in the case of non-alphabetic script like Chinese). Those symbols, alone or in groups, convey ideas that originated in someone else’s head, maybe thousands of miles away, perhaps centuries ago.
Sounds come together to form words. Words stitch together to form sentences. Sentences march in formation to tell a story. Writers must distill the ideas in their heads into those sounds and words and sentences, attempting to describe or portray them accurately. Readers must then conjure those ideas back out of the symbols, into their own imaginations. But as Ken Goodman wrote, “No reader’s meaning will ever completely agree with the writer’s meaning.”*
Now, some writers might find that knowledge depressing—all that hard work describing and plotting, for nothing? But I find it liberating. Or, at least, it defuses the bomb my perfectionism can sometimes be. It helps remind me to stick with the most important facts, trusting the reader to fill in the details.
Regardless of what dictionaries purport to do, no one understands the same word in exactly the same way. It’s one of the great frustrations, as well as the sublime beauty, of the English language: many words have multiple meanings, and context doesn’t always clarify which one the writer intended. Plus, my personal experience brings to mind a different picture in my head when I read a word like “blue” or “stormy” or “leaping” than when you read it.
For the same reason, you will never read the same book twice. Age, experience, and mood all affect your interpretation as well as your enjoyment of any given text. You may know more about the world now, and a character’s actions might morph from innocent to sinister, his personality from annoying to admirable. You can discover nuances in plot you didn’t notice before, layers of characterization unappreciated the first time through, or symbolism newly illuminated, all of which alter your interpretation of the text’s message.
Stephen King is widely quoted as saying, “Books are uniquely portable magic.” I think at the heart of this truth, the core of the magic is the miraculous act of reading. By reading, one can travel through time and space, sharing the thoughts and ideas and imagination of countless other human beings. Long-dead authors live on through their books and poems and plays, their spirit re-animating each time someone’s eyes scan the words they composed, no matter how long ago. A book is the ultimate message in a bottle, conveying at the very least a sliver of the writer’s soul.
* Quote from On Reading by Ken Goodman, © 1996.