A Bookish Buddhist Koan

Even though the proverb, “No man crosses the same river twice,” is attributed to Heraclitus, it has always struck me in the same way as Buddhist kōan. The proverb invites the same kind of mulling-over that kōan’s require. Recently, I saw a new twist on the old saying: no readers read the same book. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

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Albert André

I shouldn’t be surprised at how much I like this new bookish kōan. After all, I spent years hanging out with English majors and professors. We can argue about the meaning of one sentence for ages. Even now that I’m a librarian and have much less contact with English majors (and how I miss it!*), I still see people disagreeing about the meaning of various sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books.

Even though we’re all reading the same text, word for word, we all bring our own experiences to bear. We’ve read different books. We’ve seen different movies. We’ve talked to all sorts of people. All of that means that, in spite of the fact that we are reading the same words in the same order, no one is really reading the same story. Our experiences lead us to interpret what’s happening differently.

I will argue that this is a good thing. The fact that we’re not reading the same story means that, when we get together to talk about books, we can learn from each other. My interpretation is not 100% correct. Good stories, after all, will have so many layers of meaning that we will never get to the bottom of things. There are reasons why scholars still write about Hamlet and there is a book club that reads Ulysses over and over again. When I listen to other readers talk about books I’ve read, I learn more about those endless layers.

Not only do readers not read the same story though we read the same books, I will go farther and say that even if a reader re-reads a book, they’re not reading the same story again either. A few years ago, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and was pleasantly surprised that, this time around, I saw so much more in the book. If I read it again in another decade, I wonder what I will see then.


* No, really.

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