Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Place of Books in Our Lives

© 2007 by Julius Lester

I want to begin by looking at the word book. It comes from a Germanic root and means beech tree. This is a reference to one of two things, more likely both. One is the literal tree because it was on trees and tree bark that some of the first writing was done. It is also a reference to the beech staff on which ancient Germans carved runes.

The latter is a haunting image of origins, a beech staff standing in a forest clearing, runes inscribed on it. It does not matter what the runes represented. The significance lies in the fact that one person was attempting to reach out to others whom he or she may not have known.

I do not remember any books from my childhood. The fact that I don't remember specific books is important because it was not the content of books that was as important to me as the experience of feeling that someone I didn't know and who didn't know me was reaching out to me across the vastness. Given when and where I grew up this was crucial.

I grew up in the forties and fifties in Kansas City, Kansas and Nashville, Tennessee, and spent parts of summers at my maternal grandmother's in Arkansas. Those decades were not pleasant ones for black people, and I am uncomfortable around those who get nostalgic for the fifties. I am not nostalgic for segregation, for the "No Colored Allowed" signs that covered the landscape like litter on the smooth green grass of a park. I am not nostalgic for a time when my life was in danger if I raised my eyes and they accidentally met those of a white girl or woman. Black men and boys were lynched for this during my growing up years. It is a world I recall with the pain of inner screaming and I survived that world - partly because I discovered the beech staff standing in the forest clearing, covered with runes. Part of what those now forgotten books gave me was an emotional knowledge that the world in which I was forced to live bounded by the white heat of hatred was not the only reality. Somewhere my eyes could not then penetrate were dreams and possibilities.

The mystery and miracle of a book is found in the fact that it is a solitary voice penetrating time and space to go beyond time and space and alight for a moment in that place within each of us which is also beyond time and space. Let me explain.

I do not recall the books I read as a child but ah, the comic books! I remember them. I remember my father bringing home comic books in a cardboard box, a hundred at a time. I remember the comic book shop he would take me to where you could swap comics two-for-one. In comics my imaginative mind was nurtured. Every child yearns for the power of a super-hero or the wizardry of a sorcerer, and that yearning was especially poignant for at least one black child in the forties and fifties.

My other memory of childhood reading is rather macabre. I read countless issues of such magazines as “True Police Stories” and “Police Gazette.” They were pulp magazines that recounted in graphic detail the true stories of lurid murders. The stories were accompanied by crime scene photographs of the murder victims. Besides comics this is what I read at age eight years old and read with avidity. Why I did so will become clearer in a few moments.

In the early fifties my family moved from Kansas to Tennessee and there I discovered that blacks were permitted in only one library - the "colored" branch, as it was referred to then. It was on the other side of town from where I lived, an hour or more one way by public transportation. So my primary access to books was the bookmobile which came to my neighborhood every Friday evening. Its stock of books was not only limited in number but consisted primarily of westerns and mystery novels discarded from the white libraries. So, through much of my adolescence I read almost nothing but westerns and Perry Mason mysteries, and would read two to six every weekend.

I marvel at the wisdom of my parents. They never questioned or derided what I read. I am astounded that they bought the magazines and comic books for me since they were devoid of literary merit. But maybe my parents understood on some primal level what I was doing, though I did not.

I grew up in a violent world. Segregation was a psychological and spiritual violence, not only in its many restrictions on where we could live, eat, attend school and go at night. Segregation violated the very premise of my existence by decreeing that I was inferior to the white majority by the mere fact that I had been born black. There was also the continual threat of physical retribution and even death if you looked at a white man in what he considered the wrong way or if he didn't like your attitude. There was also the actual physical violence in my neighborhood. I will not recite the deaths from stabbings or shootings or speak of classmates imprisoned for rapes they did not commit. I will not recite the deaths of classmates from accidental fires or car accidents. Suffice it to say that I grew up in conditions where fear and death were neighbors and if you weren't careful, they could sneak through your back door and be sitting at the dinner table, knife and fork in their hands, and a paper napkin tucked in their shirt.

What does a child do who is exposed daily to such violence, who confronts the force of death even before he can spell the word? I was an adult before I understood that my reading of comic books and murder magazines, westerns and mysteries were attempts to neutralize and withstand the violence intrinsic to my dailiness. In reading about violence I found a way to isolate and objectify it, to see it as separate from me. Reading about it also reassured me that violence was not unique to my neighborhood and not only did it exist in other places, it existed at other times. And yes, it was also reassuring to read that white people were also subject to violence. Reading about violence was also like a vaccination by which I immunized myself against that which sought to harm me.

I am so thankful that my parents did not impose literary judgments on me but left me alone to read what I wanted to. They trusted me to educate my soul as I saw fit, though I did not know that was what I was doing.

This brings me to the second word whose origins I want to look at. That is the word - read. It comes from an Old Teutonic root and means, "to fit together, to consider, to deliberate, to take thought, to attend to, to take care or charge of a thing." To read is to fit together, to attend to. It is to take care of something, to take charge of something. So, what is being attended to? What is being fit together?

On the most basic level it is the reader. Who am I to judge what anybody reading a book, any book, is attending to and fitting together for themselves, what they are taking care of, what they are taking charge of?

Two of the most popular series of books for children in recent years are the Goosebumps series and the Harry Potter novels. The former is considered to be devoid of literary merit while the latter, some claim, encourages satanism. I have not read either series and honestly don't care about their merit or lack thereof. However, I do wonder if we don't need to respect our children as my parents respected me. (Quite frankly, I would not be as worried about a child reading Goosebumps or Harry Potter as I would about an eight-year-old reading “True Police Stories” and studying photographs of crime scenes. My parents had to have wondered if I was a serial killer in training.) But just as I read such magazines to mitigate the violence assaulting my child self, perhaps we need to ask ourselves: If children are so avidly reading books that scare them, as in the Goosebumps series, is there something they're afraid of? If they are drawn so powerfully to the sorcery of Harry Potter, do they feel powerless in their lives?

My oldest son is now 40. He around 12 when, while watching television one evening, he burst into tears. Twelve year old boys do not cry if they can help it so I decided I should pay attention. I asked him what was wrong? After some time he said, "I'm afraid that when I grow up there won't be enough oil left in the world." My heart broke for him. It broke both because no twelve-year-old should have to worry about the supply of oil in the world, and it broke because I was his father and I could not reassure him and tell him that everything was going to be all right. My heart broke because one of my responsibilities as a parent was to keep my children safe and let's face it: the degree to which any of us can do that anymore is decidedly limited.

Our children are growing up in a society in which the environment has been so abused it is turning against us. They are growing up in a society in which they will probably not be able to maintain for themselves the standard of living of their parents. They are growing up in a society in which racial, ethnic, religious and gender differences have been so exaggerated that they are afraid to say hello to someone. Our children live in a fear the nature and extent of which I don't know that most of us can imagine. Our children are growing up afraid of the world without and feeling impotent within to do anything about it.

The astounding power of reading is that the very act of reading can help us fit ourselves together even if what is being read is of no literary merit. The almost miraculous power of reading is that it can help us attend to our souls even if what is being read is mundane and ordinary.

All too often we moralize reading and create hierarchies. We forget that the act of reading has value, independent of content. The primary value is that through reading we encounter language. The child who reads Goosebumps has a far better chance of eventually reading the literary classics than the child who sits passively before the television set. Even Goosebumps brings a child into the presence of language and language is the primary means by which we humans attempt to communicate with each other. In his essay, "Words and Their Meanings," the English novelist and essayist, Aldous Huxley, wrote, "Words have power to mould men's thinking, to canalize their feeling, to direct their willing and acting. Conduct and character are largely determined by the nature of the words we currently use to discuss ourselves and the world around us." The child reading the Goosebumps series, or the adult reading Stephen King is experiencing the power of language to make him or her afraid. There are no gory images on a screen; there is no creepy music playing in the background; there is no audible sound of creaking doors. There are only words on a page and through words alone, the child experiences fear.

I remember reading Stephen King's novel Christine, which is about a car that goes out at night by itself and kills anyone who may have offended its owner. Say what you will about Stephen King, all I know is that there are still mornings when I look at my car suspiciously. There are other mornings when I silently wish it had been out the previous night and permanently resolved a problem for me. The power of language is that it can make you believe things you know aren't true.

When we read we discover and rediscover the power of words, the power to express thoughts and feelings, the power to touch another, the power to express love, the power to take care of.

The power of reading does not reside in the information conveyed. All too often we think of children as little beings who must constantly be taught and to the extent that we do, we remain Puritans. How many times have I been asked, "What do you want children to learn from your books?" My response is two-fold: nothing, and whatever they need to know.

I wonder if education in America is not misguided in placing a premium on teaching children to reason. Is learning to reason as important as our civilization has led us to believe? To what extent does reason enhance the quality of our living? To what extent does reason bring the quality of mercy to our living? I would suggest that reason's place of importance in our lives and in our educational system is vastly overrated.

For 32 years I taught history, literature and religion at the University of Massachusetts and published about each in 45 books for children, adolescents and adults. Though my teaching and writing did not eschew reason, I placed the emphasis on another faculty, one our educational systems seem to have little place for, and this is certainly true at the college and university level. I refer to the faculty of the imagination, a faculty as vital to our lives as reason, and I would suggest perhaps more so.

I am going to make a broad and sweeping generalization but I believe it to be true: The failure of modern living is the failure of the imagination.

The root meaning of the word, imagine, is "to picture to oneself." In other words, when we imagine we create an inner picture of something not visible to our physical eye.

One kind of picture we are all accustomed to is images of things we have done or witnessed. This is the visual aspect of memory. It is not imagination. Imagination requires something more of us. It requires that we see what we have not seen, what we may never see, what may not even exist.

Obviously, books are the royal road that enable us to enter the realm of the imaginative. Books enable us to experience what it is like to be someone else. Through books we experience other modes of being. Through books we recognize who we are and who we might become.

It is summer, 1956. I am 17 years old and that fall I will be entering college. I don't know what made me remember my senior English class and the unit on Romantic poetry, but I did. And I remembered reading about the English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and something about him had caught my imagination. So I went to the library and checked out a biography of Shelley. Even now I don't know what it was about him. Perhaps it was that he was an atheist and as the son of a fundamentalist Methodist minister, the thought that there had been someone in the world who had not believed in God, was revolutionary. In his atheism Shelley presented me with the possibility that there were other ways to be than the one in which I had been raised. I can still see the seventeen-year-old me sitting beneath the large tree in our front yard making my first attempts at writing poetry and by the end of that summer I had reached a startling decision: I wanted to be a writer. Because of Percy Bysshe Shelley I reimagined what was possible for my life and responded to something in my soul which had theretofore not been recognized. I knew I was not destined to be a minister like my grandfather and father; I knew I would not be the pianist my mother wanted me to be. I would be a writer even though reason derided and mocked me.

Books invite us into realms of the soul by asking us to imagine that we are someone other than who we are. Books require that we temporarily put our egos in a box by the door and take on the spirit of others. Books are the place where the possibility of blacks and whites and men and women experiencing each other is created. I am convinced that if I can bring you into my being through words, I create the possibility that you and I will see that we are more alike than we may have thought. When we can imagine the hurt and anger of another person, we have an understanding in the heart. When we understand in the heart, each of us is less alone.

In 1978 the now deceased novelist John Gardner published a small book called On Moral Fiction. It was daring of him to use the word 'moral,' because he risked guilt-by-association with those who seek to ban books, legislate personal behavior and have us all recreated in the image of a god who is a perfect reflection of them. But, morality is not a prescription list of do's and don'ts. Morality is about the spirit we bring to our living, and by implication, to literature. If, in the presence of a person or a book, we feel ourselves mysteriously but unmistakably confirmed as human beings, if we sense that life itself is being celebrated in this book or person, then we are in the presence of the moral.

John Gardner put it this way: "We recognize true art by its careful, thoughtful honest search for and analysis of values. It is not didactic because, instead of teaching by authority and force, it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach. It clarifies and confirms...[M]oral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action."

Perhaps the key phrases are "thoroughly honest search" and "explores open-mindedly." We are not accustomed to conceiving of the moral either as searching or exploring "open-mindedly," or imaginatively. We do not often encounter human beings who search with care and thoroughness for values, who explore with open minds to learn what they should teach (and even when walking, we are teaching something about how to be in the world).

The last word I want to look at is knowledge. It comes from a Middle English root and means to confess, to recognize. This is what a book, any book, offers us the opportunity to do - to confess to and recognize ourselves. To confess and recognize our fantasies, our joys and griefs, our aspirations and failures, our hopes and our fears. Deep within the solitary wonder where we sit alone with a book, we confess and recognize what we would be too ashamed to tell another, and sometimes we are as ashamed of joy and delight and success as we are of embarrassment and failure. As a writer and a reader I come to books for this experience of confession and recognition.

For me writing is not self-expression. Instead it is my way of reaching out to people I do not know and will never know and seeking to be known. Writing brings me into intimate relationship with others, a mysterious relationship since I do not see them and they do not see me. Writing is at once a solitary act and a social one in which rune-carver and reader come together and know themselves and each other.

You and I wander along the densely bordered trails of our lives, trails closed in by meals to be cooked, children whose hurts and joys need our tending when we feel scarcely able to tend our own hurts and joys, marriages that periodically seem to start unraveling before our very eyes and sometimes cannot be knit anew; and there is always the car that needs fixing and the letter from American Express telling us to please leave home without it. And lo, in the midst of the detritus and flotsam of our lives, the trail leads into a clearing, and there a beech staff stands, plunged into the earth like a sliver of moonbeam. We stop and read the runes so painfully and painstaking inscribed thereon, and if the beech staff has been inscribed lovingly, if we can see specks of the writer's blood in the cracks of a rune or two, we find our heads nodding slowly in amazed recognition that someone else knows and put it into words. We are confirmed and recognized and say a quiet but audible, "Yes, yes. That is how it is."

That is what reading is, whether you are an adult or a child. It is the shock of recognition. Reading is the means through which we are led to say Yes to ourselves and that densely bordered trail of our lives. Through reading we are given words and through words we gain the power to subdue chaos and tame storms. Reading gives us back to ourselves in a way nothing else and no one else can. Ultimately it enables us to say yes, yes - and then continue on with the mystery of this journey we call our lives.