Review: The Simple Act of Reading

Monday, 28 March 2016

25787508The Simple Act of Reading
Released: 1st June 2015
Published by: Random House Australia
Genre: Non Fiction
Source: Library
Pages: 288
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
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For it is in the simple act of reading where the living and the dead, the real and the imagined, meet. It is in the simple act of reading where we exercise those two most sacred of human vocations: compassion and creativity. For as we know, without either of these primes there is no possibility for a humanity present or past worth talking about. - Junot Diaz 

 A collection of essays and memoir pieces on the topic of reading, in particular what it means for writers to be readers and how that has shaped their life. The Simple Act of Reading will support Sydney Story Factory by emphasising the importance of reading in shaping an individual's future.

Contributors include; Debra Adelaide, Joan London, Delia Falconer, Sunil Badami, Gabrielle Carey, Luke Davies, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Kate Forsyth, Giulia Giuffre, Andy Griffiths, Anita Heiss, Gail Jones, Jill Jones, Catherine Keenan, Malcolm Knox, Wayne Macauley, Fiona McFarlane, David Malouf, Rosie Scott, Carrie Tiffany and Geordie Williamson.

As a reader, you'll most likely find me in the midst of a gripping work of fiction, where the imagination can run wild and the words on the page are a portal to an infinite number of worlds. However, the genre of 'books about books' has always interested me, and so I picked up The Simple Act of Reading. In this collection of essays and short memoirs, bookworms will find that some aspects of their reading experiences are bound to be reflected in the writings of so many different authors that love to read also.

This is a book which holds some beautifully worded and erudite insights into the multifaceted nature of reading. Something which particularly resonated with me is this piece from the section Reading the Signs by David Malouf:

There are some books that make such a vivid impression on us, put us so deeply under their spell, that our first acquaintance with them becomes a watershed in our lives, and the actual reading - the excited turning of pages over a period of hours or days - seems in retrospect to have taken place in a country all its own, with a light and weather like no other we have ever known.

For some of my most loved novels, this definitely rings true. I still have some memories of reading the books from my childhood when they most enchanted me - and those experiences are almost chimerical when looking back at them now. What's fascinating about a book like this is that it takes the activity of reading, which is fundamentally empiric and of course unique to each individual, and highlights some of the commonalities which many booklovers can relate to. 

This is the almost religious, meditative transcendence of the simple act of reading: that in losing ourselves in the lives of others, we can find ourselves, enabling us to see the world and those around us refracted in a new light - in our own reflection. Where else in the world can we do that? Not even in our dreams.

Perhaps one of the most enticing reasons to read is the fact that it can envelop you into anything from another planet and fantastical settings, to the contemporary versions of our own. Yet more importantly than that, what has been done so well in The Simple Act of Reading is accentuate that in having a glimpse into the lives of others, we as readers are bound to find elements of ourselves. This is arguably what makes characters relatable to us, and reading as riveting as it can be. On the contrary, reading about characters which are apparently totally different to our own selves can make us more empathetic as people, and more aware of the many nuances which define our sociey.

Like old love letters or diaries, books we once loved are souvenirs of times we do and don't want to forget, which might be why they're almost impossible to throw away without some sense of loss, even as we cannot recall all the particulars. There's a reason we give new lovers and friends and our children copies of the books we love; we're giving them a part of ourselves in an act of faith even greater than lending them.

As well as exploring the immaterial aspects of reading, this book also brings to light the joys (and perhaps perils) of owning and lending books. There are some books on my shelf which I know I will never be able to part with, since they hold too much sentimental value. While I may lend books to people in the hope that it will return to me in the same condition they received it, what's of greater significance is that maybe they will enjoy it too, and we can then discuss it afterwards.

The books that have meant the most to me have felt like the deepest secrets, as though I was the only person to have ever discovered them. But is there any greater elation than discovering someone loves the very same book you thought no one had heard of? All of a sudden, you share a secret, a dream, a memory, in a way your individual experiences and lives never could.

As I mentioned, this book is full of edifying quotes, though the one above is certainly a favourite. With so many books out there, from the glowing bestsellers to the unbeknownst gems just around the corner, it is one of the best feelings as a reader to find someone else who loves the same book you do. This is what can form friendships, and bring whole communities together. That "Oh, you read that book - me too!" moment is a magical one in itself (well, as long as they didn't hate the book...or that might be a little awkward). In any case, books generate discussion - something which takes the solitary activity of turning pages to the next level.


In all, what made me love this book was finding so many of the reasons why I love reading reflected back at me. Though some essays I could relate to more than others, to see how these authors have also been enthralled and fascinated by reading in general was a memorable experience. If you're generally a fiction reader and wanting something inspiring and expertly written, then this is for you.

Reading is a kind of waking dream, where we can believe the magic is real, in a way we know it can never be in real life - Sunil Badami


  1. This sounds like a really fascinating book that we readers can definitely relate to! It sounds like there's some fantastic concepts here as well. Great review Genie!

    1. Thanks Jeann - it's interesting to read a nonfiction book about reading itself, it puts it into a whole new perspective.


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