The Astonishing Power of Reading
I hated reading as a child. In high school and college (only went to one year of each — but that’s another story), I tap-danced around anything that required reading. And once it was no longer required, I avoided it altogether.
Until I had my first child. The sacred experience of nursing came along with a catch: You had to sit still for around ten to fifteen minutes. My mother, sensing my restlessness, gave me a book to read to pass the time (as though gazing at my perfect child weren’t enough — but yes, after a couple months, the mind tends to wander).
It was not exactly ‘ChickLit.’ Looking back now, I shake my head and smile. My mother gave me a copy of “Battle Cry,” by Leon Uris, about his WWII experience in the 6th Marine regiment. Couldn’t have been further from what I thought might interest me, but because it was so well written I was hooked. It took me months to read it, but I couldn’t put it down.
That’s when and how I started reading for real. I was twenty-two.
Reading is still hard for me, but now I don’t know what I’d do without it. To this day, I have to place anything (a bookmark, a folded piece of paper, whatever) under the line I’m reading so I can stay on track. Which makes it all the more remarkable that I’ve taken up Ray Bradbury’s challenge, the 1000-day MFA (start at 11:04 for the specific instructions).
I haven’t been able to complete the daily reading of an essay, a poem and a short story, but I’m on Day 50 and I’ve been coming pretty close. And last night, I got why we do this at all. I read an essay that demonstrated to me not only the astonishing power of great writing, but also the most compelling reason for reading. I read James Agee’s essay, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.”
This four and a half pages of text drew me, for an hour, into his gentle childhood with his parents. I got to visit Knoxville of a summer evening, and sit on quilts laid out on the “rough, wet grass of the back yard.” I got to lay there and listen to his parents and his aunt and his uncle talk of nothing as the day slowly shifted into night, and the night became “one blue dew.”
After I finished the essay, it sat around inside me, waiting for me to really get it. I felt compelled to read it again and again, savoring the use of repetition, the lyrical images, the attention to detail. And then I realized why this essay had burrowed so deep into me.
First, the zen-like noticing of minutiae. You have to open your eyes if you’re going to describe something, and his eyes were the eyes of an old Buddhist monk on a mountaintop. Check out this meditation on a garden hose:
“The nozzles were variously set but usually so there was a long sweet stream of spray, the nozzle wet in the hand, the water trickling the right forearm and the peeled-back cuff, and the water whishing out a long loose and low-curved cone, and so gentle a sound. First an insane noise of violence in the nozzle, then the still irregular sound of adjustment, then the smoothing into steadiness and a pitch as accurately tuned to the size and style of stream as any violin.”
How do you not lose yourself completely in that description? And how do you not simultaneously find yourself in it, remembering your own hand wet on the nozzle, finding exactly the right adjustments for your garden? This magical transaction takes place in the mind when we read writers that resonate with us. In the same moment, our lives become porous across time and space; they invite us into their homes and come over to ours.
Second, we get to experience things we couldn’t even imagine. Yes, yes, the travel, the exotic places, the heroic adventures, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the healing (there’s no other word for it) that took place invisibly, on a small scale, as I read. The strange, shy sense of safety I felt, visiting his neighborhood and his gentle family. A mild, loving father. A loved mother. They became my parents too, in this passage:
“But the men by now, one by one, have silenced their hoses and drained and coiled them. Now only two, and now only one, is left, and you see only ghostlike shirt with the sleeve garters, and sober mystery of his mild face like the lifted face of large cattle enquiring of your presence in a pitchdark pool of meadow;” and a little later, when he and his family were lying on quilts on the grass, “All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me.”
Reading this, I felt warm and safe and held and quiet. An unusual feeling for me. I’m so accustomed to bracing myself for humankind’s ugliest versions of themselves damaging their way through the pages. Childhood sexual abuse, drunk parents, society’s casual cruelties normalized into snarky humor. Reading this essay by James Agee reminded me that goodness, too, can be exalted with language and held up for noticing and honoring. God bless Mr. Agee for writing this piece.
And God bless all the writers who have sat with me on my couch in the TV room with the TV off. Anton Checkov, Barbara Kingsolver, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O’Connor, Adrienne Rich, Rachel Carson, Mark Twain, Emerson, Yeats. The list goes on. They’ve all been to my house now, and told me things I’d never heard before. They’ve all held my hand and shown me around while I visited their worlds.
May everyone who’s writing right now, scribbling with a worn down pencil nub on a piece of cardboard, curling the words into the pages of a journal, banging it out on an old timey typewriter, speaking into a recorder, or tapping away on a laptop — may you all realize how much we need you.
And may we continue this magical literary foreign exchange program that enables our world to hold hands with yours.