“The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the most honourable people of the past”. Some variation of this quote by Rene Descartes has come up several times this week, in more than one of my new classes. My History professor described his class as continuing a conversation that anyone who has ever looked into and spoken of history has been a part of, my American Lit professor explained that by reading these books we were becoming a part of a conversation about that class’s topic, and then I read this specific quote in my philosophy textbook. By the third time hearing it, I took note and decided to really look into this concept.
My initial thought on the topic was, how is it possible to be in a conversation with someone who may be dead and definitely is not physically present or even aware of this conversation? The easy answer is that reading someone’s words is like listening to their thoughts. Any good author, on any subject, can only write what they know. Even in the realm of science fiction or fantasy, an author can only write what they imagine and therefore ‘know’ within themselves. In a person’s writing we can see how they feel towards certain issues, what they are like, and perhaps what they believe, all without them having to say anything directly on the subject. As Ally Condie’s character Cassia says in the book Matched, “Every minute you spend with someone gives them a part of your life and takes part of theirs”. This applies to everything a person writes as well as their time. When we read a book, be it a fiction narrative or a nonfiction instruction book, we take in some of the author’s thoughts and allow them to mingle with our own. We add our own interpretations to their words, and our personal worldview offers a perception not quite identical to what the author envisioned. In this, we may not be having a conversation of voices, but we are participating in an exchange of ideas.
This conversation takes place every time someone opens a book, from the youngest of beginning readers to the most educated academic. For every person who can read, there is an opportunity to engage with brilliant people from around the world and almost any time in history. Every time a person writes anything, they are adding to potentially universal conversation of whatever the topic is that they discuss, for what is a conversation more than a back-and-forth sharing of ideas and beliefs? Even if a person only “spoke” once, only wrote one publication, they still contributed. And as I brought up before, reading is just as much a part of this conversation as writing. Listening is at least just as important as speaking, and arguably more important.
All of humanity is a part of some intellectual conversation. There is in me a sense similar to what is often called civic duty, to read and comment on what I read and take part in the facets of these historical conversations which I care strongly about and those which I know a significant amount on. As I learn and grow, I will compare what I know to what others say and know, using my good sense and Biblical foundation as a way to determine the truth. I will not deny my unique worldview, but I acknowledge that no one else shares my specific perceptions. This is how the conversation flourishes.By new ideas being brought in alongside the analizing of existing ones; this is also the very purpose for the university classes where I first heard the phrase. That is the perfect setting for examining ideas and exchanging knowledge. As my professors claimed, as we examine literature, history, philosophy, and perceptions of each, we are continuing and adding to the conversation of each topic. We are adding to our own knowledge about the story of humanity, which as they like to say in the Western Civ department here, makes one become “more fully human”. Whether that statement is true or not, the story of humanity as a whole is being written by every person as they live. The beauty of a book is that a person’s contribution to the conversations they partake of can continue to be heard and contemplated here on earth long after the person themself. I am going to try to make my contributions as worthwhile as possible.