A good book is a conversation. My favorite writers never preach; they rely on self-discovery, knowing that interpretation and inference are the lifeblood of reading. One moment, we’re confused and anxious. Then the author reveals a detail that forces us to reinterpret the story. I recounted this experience to a friend and she recalled a quote from Italian essayist Umberto Eco. “Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means.”
In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren compare passive reading (receiving information from an author who is intent on giving it) with active reading (initiating a dialogue with the author). They use the metaphor of a catcher and a pitcher. A book needs a reader just like a pitcher needs a catcher. In a game of catch, the pitcher won’t always throw a strike and the catcher must be willing to adjust. That’s a good thing. The joy of writing and reading align when a reader and a writer are working together.
The same metaphor appears elsewhere, from the Greek Stoic Epictetus (who wrote that “skillful ballplayers,” like skillful listeners, are not “concerned about the ball as being something good or bad, but about throwing and catching it.”) to the Roman historian Plutarch (who said that the “harmonious rhythm” between a speaker and a listener should resemble the harmonious rhythm of a game of catch). In his mediations, Descartes reflected that, “the reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.”