I was recently struck by John Steinbeck’s dedication in East of Eden. He presents his novel to Pascal “Pat” Covici, his editor and companion, as the hand-crafted “box” that Pat had once requested.
Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts — the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
And still the box is not full.
The contents of Steinbeck’s box fall in suit with how I’ve long pictured the story — rather than the book itself — as the thing to be revered. Though their containers may be inanimate, in each book lives a beating heart that pumps vulnerabilities through its veins.
I read for the same reason that I pay attention to those who tell me their stories via other media: it is the highest privilege to hold someone else’s heart within you.
Though anatomically inaccurate, I think of this heart-holding metaphor whenever I read, listen, watch, or otherwise experience a story. I view reading as akin to a brief heart transplant, in which the object you borrow from the author to asymptotically approach an understanding of their story is very much alive.
My heart-holding metaphor symbolically aligns with reading as an act of empathy, of love. I envision empathy as the willingness to endure the figurative heart transplant that comes along with reading a book. Listening to my close friends tell me their stories also feels like a heart transplant. Empathy is cradling someone’s heart with an open mind and — you guessed it — an open heart. (Perhaps an open sternum as well?)
Despite my waxing about the story — the breathtaking interior of a book — the box-book is not irrelevant to the reader. As Steinbeck notes, his words alone cannot fill East of Eden. What paradox is this, that the most a storyteller can share isn’t enough?
But, like a blood-pumping heart, each story is alive. By holding a heart-story, I, the participant, leave my mark on it. Be it through marginalia, journals, or other interactions with a story, the reader adds to the author’s box.
I believe that the figurative heart that is a story does not forget a single reader who has held it. Just as reading catalyzes individual growth, a book can mature through the impact of generations of readers.
Reading is not about the box, but reading is a contribution to the box.
Reading from and listening to others are among the things I love most in this world. I can only hope that Mr. Covici, too, realized the value of Steinbeck’s gift rather than cursing at the intangibility of his new box.
Thank you for reading, and a special thank you to those who have shared their stories with me: you’ve inspired me in more ways than this piece could ever reflect! If this piece resonated with you, please share and recommend it.