9 min. read Reading has got something magical. It brings you in another state, another time and another place. It’s almost travelling but then with your thoughts. The book by Steve McCurry On Reading that I came across recently shows that perfectly. Let me show you the amazing work of photojournalist Steve McCurry.
I like to cherish my memories every once in a while. One memory that I have is from when I was a child. I remember that I was laying in my bed thinking about all the places I could go to, all the books that I wanted to read and all the people that I could meet. One idea that really made me sad, was that I just knew that we don’t have enough time in our lives to read all the books that are out there for us to digest. I remember that that made me really sad, although I was just around 9 years old. After I decided I had no solution for that – I eventually fell into sleep.
I only was that 9 years old kid, but my love for reading has never left me. Every book teaches me something new or helps me see things differently. It’s a way of travelling. You know, you can read a book from a writer of 30 years ago and he introduces you with a new perspective, another time, another place. It helps you dive into another world. It’s what you do when you travel. For more about memories, check my blog My top 10 quotes to cherish your memories.
From the Afghan Girl to people reading
You may know the picture of the Afghan Girl. It’s one of the most famous photographs ever taken and dates back from 1985. It’s an image of a 12-year-old girl with sea green eyes staring defiantly into the camera. The photojournalist behind that picture is Steve McCurry and the photograph made it to the cover of National Geographic at that time. This is the one:
But war and those affected by it are not his only subjects. He explains:
“Like most photographers, I’m fascinated by people in everyday situations, […] The work I do is mostly wandering and observing human nature and human activity, working and playing and leisure time. As you’re walking around the streets of China, India, New York, wherever – it is fun to photograph people simply doing things.”– Steve McCurry
For the book called “On Reading”, McCurry was inspired by a great Hungarian artist. “I met the legendary photographer André Kertész shortly after I moved to New York in my early thirties,” says Steve McCurry in the book’s introduction. “Some of his most intriguing pictures were photographs of people reading. They were taken over a 50-year period, and were collected in his book On Reading, published in 1971.” McCurry’s new book is, he argues, “my homage to Kertész’s talent, his influence, and his genius”. If you’re also interested in the work of André Kertész, you can see the gallery of his work over here.
Although the book came out a while ago, it perfectly combines travelling with reading and it still is enjoying to read and full of gorgeous photographs.
The attraction of reading
So it’s basically a whole book dedicated to people from all around the world reading. But watching people read may not sound the most interesting thing to do. I have to say that what makes the book so interesting, is that it showcases a certain attraction everyone has when it comes to reading.
When having a look at McCurry’s photos, you can see that they are made up of moments, glimpses of people absorbed in the written word, many unaware they were being photographed. The Swiss poet, novelist and painter Hermann Hesse gave an insightful description of what can be an all-consuming experience in his 1920 essay On Reading Books.
“At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.” – Hermann HesseTweet
Writer Paul Theroux describes the nature of that magic in the foreword of the book:
“A great part of the appeal of reading fiction is the discovery that the reader knows much more of the inner life of the characters in the book than of his or her own family members or friends. The intensity of the reading experience, impossible to communicate to a non-reader, is why fictional characters seem real, exemplary, tragic, comic and accessible… The great books cast a spell, admitting the reader to a world sometimes exemplary, like the Polynesian Eden of Melville’s Typee, or to the English dystopia of Orwell’s 1984.” – Paul Theroux in On Reading.Tweet
But the Steve McCurry On Reading photographs are also a reminder that many people around the world still choose the printed word over a smartphone. Back in 1930, Hesse argued that
“We need not fear a future elimination of the book. On the contrary, the more that certain needs for entertainment and education are satisfied through other inventions, the more the book will win back in dignity and authority. For even the most childish intoxication with progress will soon be forced to recognise that writing and books have a function that is eternal.” – Hermann HesseTweet
Hesse concluded: “It will become evident that formulation in words and the handing on of these formulations through writing are not only important aids but actually the only means by which humanity can have a history and a continuing consciousness of itself.”
The photos in On Reading reveal something that both takes us out of the world and helps us learn more about it. On her Brain Pickings blog, Maria Popova describes the different roles of reading. “For Kafka, books were ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’; for Carl Sagan, ‘proof that humans are capable of working magic’; for James Baldwin, a way to change our destiny; for Neil Gaiman, the vehicle for the deepest human truths; for Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, our ultimate frontier of freedom.” Galileo, she argues, “saw reading as a way of having superhuman powers”.
Hesse encapsulated the transformative nature of reading in his 1930 essay The Magic of the Book: “Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest… Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity. And if anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books.”
Gorgeous photographs of people reading
One of his ongoing projects is compiling a collection of photos of people reading, entitled “Fusion: The Synergy of Energy and Words” celebrates the timeless and personal act of getting lost in a book, as seen through McCurry’s lens. Shared by all societies, ages, and genders, he showcases the beauty and seductiveness of reading—as well as the solitude and solace it provides to the reader as they’re absorbed and transported to a different world.
From two Cambodian monks reading in front of a historic temple to an Indian taxi driver taking in a paper during his break, McCurry emphasizes that the act of reading spans all boundaries.
“We’re all different and we’re all the same. It amuses me that whether you’re fabulously rich and sophisticated or you happen to be someone on the street in the third world or a classroom in some remote area, reading is all the same act. It’s a common link in our shared humanity, a thing we all do that is regardless of where we are economically or socially.” – Steve McCurry On Reading.Tweet
“Readers are seldom lonely or bored, because reading is a refuge and an enlightenment,” writes Paul Theroux in the foreword to the new Phaidon book Steve McCurry: On Reading. “This wisdom is sometimes visible. It seems to me that there is always something luminous in the face of a person in the act of reading.”
As a photographer, McCurry is always on the hunt for the “unguarded moment,” that slice of time that reveals something personal and honest. “Reading offers a time for contemplation. Even in Afghanistan, where life is not easy, you notice people in unlikley circumstances reading,” he says. “I have a picture of a man in a manhole – he was using it as a bomb shelter between air raids — who was reading the book. Reading is something any literate person is drawn to do and it becomes a part of your life. It’s just one of the things that connects us all together, that reminds us that we’re all the same.”
The Steve McCurry On Reading photo series has, as you might have noticed, touched me. So tell me, what is the most extraordinary or intimate place where you read your books? The most quirky ones I’ll post in the next blog post 🙂
Head over to my bookshelf
If you want to see what kind of books I read.