The (un)Lonely Reader: On the Pleasure of Finding Community in a Book

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is one of the loneliest books I know. Maybe this is why I kept reading and re-reading it as a lonely child.  The creature’s isolation, and quest for companionship, drives the novel, and as a child reader I empathized with both. “I am alone and miserable,” states the creature to his creator, since in his loneliness he has finally tracked down Victor to demand a mate. This same desire for companionship seems true for many of Shelley’s other characters, too. “I have no friend, Margaret,” announces the sailor-narrator Walton in the novel’s opening pages. “We are unfashioned creatures, but half made up,” agrees Victor, listening to Walton’s lament. “To be friendless is indeed to be unfortunate,” says the blind DeLacey to the creature, speaking from his own experience of exile, though he knows not to whom he speaks.

As a lonely reader, I found this theme of loneliness to propel the plot. It was the emptiness or lack that narrative promised to fill. It was the problem that characters, and myself, were ostensibly trying to resolve. And it was the experience that I probably felt I could offset by reading, either by learning from the characters’ actions or by distracting myself temporarily from what I felt.

Yet these days, I also wonder if I was also drawn to this book for the ways in which many of these lonely characters work to keep themselves alone. Walton announces on the first pages that he has no friends, then immediately sets out on an expedition to the uninhabited north pole. Victor throws himself into work to fill up with intellectual activity the crevices left empty of human interaction, though in doing so, he withdraws himself from human interaction and thereby makes for himself more crevices to fill.  “I’d just really rather stay home and finish reading my book,” I’d announce regularly to my parents throughout my pre-adolescence, myself an allegedly lonely school-aged kid.

As Laura Miller discusses in her wonderful study of C.S. Lewis and her own childhood love of reading, lonely children are also often avid readers, finding in books the companionship that they lack in life. Miller fills her study with memories of childhood absorption, those scenes that I too remember of getting so lost in my reading that I’d feel almost dizzy when I stopped. I’m sure I shared some characteristics with Walton, or with Victor, when I chose books over trying harder to make human friends. I’m sure that we all, in some ways, perpetuated the condition we thought we wanted to change.

I also think Shelley in her novel is asking us to consider the tension between her characters’ words and actions: the difference between paying lip service to a desire for community and the behaviors that allow us to connect, substantially, to living beings. But I know for myself that I didn’t experience reading as isolating. Even though I often read in solitary spaces, the practice grounded me, and made me more self-confident, and made me feel more connected to people, in ways that I think Shelley endorses and that I want briefly to explore.

When I think of Victor studying frenetically at Ingolstadt, he reminds me at first of today’s internet generation, driven to fill any blank space with the company of external stimulation. And in worried moments, this is how I consider my escapist tendencies with books. Do we all just struggle so much with being alone? And yet Victor’s studies make no pretense to be interactive.

After he leaves the classroom and retreats to his lab, he toils by choice in solitary intellectual and physical labor, unaccompanied even by the Fritz or Igor assistant who will be added into cinematic adaptations of the tale.  Victor finds all the companionship he needs, for a time, in a self-generated mental activity, an activity that doesn’t initially answer back. This to me is the difference between the feeling of communion we can develop through sustained reading, and the more defuse sense of community I experience from too much time spent on social media. When I absorb passively the stylings of Instagram or TikTok, I feel taken outside of myself.  When I sink into a book, even for perhaps a dizzying amount of time, I feel anchored or somehow self-reflective. I feel meditative, even as I am thinking about other characters and other lives.

These feelings form points of discussion in a class I teach to freshmen every fall, on the role that reading books, and particularly novels, currently plays in our busy, technological lives.  This is a two-unit, un-graded class, in which students self-nominate books they have loved and want to re-read, so I attract a range of majors from across the university, and the reasons students give for coming to the class range as well.  Many of them identify as “lapsed” readers: individuals who loved reading in junior high and high school and who have fallen out of the habit, but who remember how much they loved it and want somehow to return.

At times, honestly, the class feels as if it is functioning as a gym membership or an AA meeting. Students say they know reading is “good” for them—or makes them feel good—but without the structure or accountability they would struggle to get it done. Students also often start by identifying themselves confessionally: “Hi, I’m Ivy. I used to read a lot more books, but…” The community of the class feels important to them as a support structure for reading. After our discussion ends, we retreat to our individual lives and schedules but reunite every Wednesday to talk about what we’ve read.

Writing requires an intellectual effort that cannot, in and of itself, be seen.  Reading, too, takes place internally, and the absorption promoted by the practice can take an individual and remove her from a group.

As our weekly discussions emblematize for me, how we encounter other people can be not only described but mediated by books. I believe reading and writing are activities that require from their participants a level of hiding, or isolation, that paradoxically acts in a larger service of visibility, connection, or being seen. As a lifelong reader, I find in books a promise that heads and hearts can actually be shared. As a writer, I find in the pull of the page a promise that through words I can make hearts and heads visible to all. To be alone and yet to be together is the sense of companionship, or community, I find within the written word.

I don’t want to repeat here the current chestnut that reading is important because it has trained me in empathy and so made me a more tolerant, accepting soul. I’m not always accepting, and I believe that even if they act in the service of community, reading and writing are private, self-involved, and sometime selfish activities. Writing occurs in secret spaces, often physical spaces of privacy and also a mental world of inspiration that few can reach.  Writing requires an intellectual effort that cannot, in and of itself, be seen.  Reading, too, takes place internally, and the absorption promoted by the practice can take an individual and remove her from a group.

I think reading counters loneliness because it makes me, in an indirect way, more self-aware. It allows me to hold onto my consciousness while testing it out against different lives, and so when I am done reading, I am more truly open to the presence of others—more truly able to listen to other opinions and experiences—because I am less afraid of being effaced. For me, this fear of effacement is at the heart of loneliness, and I feel it on the broadest level when I try to describe the importance of my practice and profession to those who don’t partake. Living a life in books, as I am sure many of us know, means regularly to confront the question of why books matter, and I’ve found that the question can feel designed to erase the individuals asked to answer it, while the individuals who answer it must do so from a secret and private place.

I also think that this bind, of how to defend or describe publicly a private need, can for those of us in the humanities, be our bond, and I think this bind and bond are at the heart of Frankenstein, too.  Not just because Mary Shelley is constantly exploring that balance between isolation and community, but because the very heart, or center, of this novel contains a scene that I find to be at once the most communal and lonely of the book. I mean the scenes of reading that take place in the DeLacey’s cottage, and which the creature witnesses from the confines of his hovel, and which provide one illustration of how reading can channel the individual experience as a way to form community among others.

His introduction to reading, and to written language, is as that which can connect us to each other even as (in the creature’s words) it can ultimately inspire us to “turn towards” ourselves.

The De Laceys are poor cottagers, in exile from France, and the father is blind, and so during the winter months of early darkness and little labor, the son Felix helps them pass the time by reading aloud. The practice of reading aloud takes an individual experience and expands it, reminiscent of the phenomenon I still enjoy when I read bedtime stories aloud to my children at night.

Reading aloud is requisite because the father, given his disability, is unable to read, and the family will soon be joined by the Turkish Safie who does not yet know their language, and who will benefit from these readings as reinforcing the language lessons she receives during the day. The creature, too, will benefit. “This reading had puzzled me extremely at first,” he states, witnessing the production from his hovel but not understanding initially that the marks on the paper before Felix inform the sounds he makes. “By degrees I discovered that he uttered many of the same sounds when he read as when he talked. I conjectured, therefore, that he found on the paper signs for speech which he understood…” By even more gradual degrees, the creature is able to learn how to read from watching Safie’s tutorials. Eventually, when he finds a bag of books, he is able to sit with the volumes and read them to himself.

This experience, of the creature’s solitary reading, is frequently discussed by critics for the ways in which the creature shows himself identifying and disidentifying with the protagonists of which he reads. But I am more moved by the creature’s introduction to reading, which is not solitary but communal, and which is not silent but performed. His introduction to reading, and to written language, is as that which can connect us to each other even as (in the creature’s words) it can ultimately inspire us to “turn towards” ourselves.

I find these scenes some of the loneliest in the novel, for how they distill the experiences of connection from which the creature will forever be exiled. And I find these scenes of exclusion so painful because I find the proffered scenes of community to be some of the most intimate and domestic that Shelley describes. These moments show how books can bring the De Laceys comfort amidst a time of trouble, and how books can overcome language barriers and strengthen the connections between a Christian French exile and an unwillingly-Muslim Turk.

But I also find the scenes touching because, for a moment, the creature knows not that he is excluded, and in this moment, who is to say he is? What the creature witnesses, what the creature craves, what the creature all too briefly feels, are experiences of connection made available through the written word.  This experience is what Mary Shelley, in writing her novel of loneliness, offers to us, and it is this experience that we, as scholars and lovers of the humanities, can continue, through talking about reading, to share.

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