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Saturday, September 15, 2007

On becoming a reader

Listened to Dana Gioia today talk about The Big Read program of the NEA. Gioia gave one reason why the US needs to revive its reading culture: to preserve liberal democracy. All the best minds that have made the US the great country that it is were readers, he said, of novels, poems, and stories. He also said: Reading makes other peoples’ lives a reality. Reading is an acquired skill in higher order thinking; it stimulates the imagination. People who read are more interested in the world around them, they participate more in civic life, they volunteer more, they give more. And moreover, poor people who read do more of the above than the rich people who read.

These days our lives are bombarded with a thousand ways on what to buy, what to sell, how to commodify, how to be happy, so that the time required by reading is given up. There is enough national concern about the declining literacy in the US that it spurred The Big Read movement in an attempt to make reading a central part of the culture again.

I appreciated this speech. I looked up the BBC site of the top 100 books and I realized that I am a reader. I have read many of the titles on this list. Just don’t quiz me on them.

As I was thinking about how I came to love reading, my first memory returns me to childhood: My father reading from the Bible during Friday night family devotions and daily bible reading moments at the breakfast table. Then there’s Sunday school where we competed in memorizing Bible verses. The Bible in KJV, Standard, Duoay versions - name it we read it.

In elementary school, my sister who is two years behind, reminded me that the school library had open shelves and that is how she learned to love reading. She could just go to the library’s open shelves and choose her own books. In our high school she told me that the books were kept behind glass doors and students had to use the card catalog to choose a book which the librarian then had to pull off the shelf for you. She was no longer free to just linger around the shelves and browse. Somehow I do not remember this.

I do remember, however, that in high school, one of my older sisters had brought home the forbidden Mao’s red book. I found it. Read it. Wondered why it was forbidden. I also found Night by Elie Wiesel under the covers of my sister’s bed. I remember stealing it to read it and then struggling to understand what the holocaust was and why he thought god is dead. The only other book I remember from those days is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Again, I couldn’t admit to my older sisters that I had been stealing and reading their books. I didn’t understand Frankl’s work either but perhaps my interest in theological and philosophical questions began with that book.

By the time I got to college, having access to the UP Library’s open shelves, didn’t easily convince me that it was okay to read books that were not on the teachers’ reading lists. So when I discovered The Great Gatsby and Freud (forgot which title) at the library, I felt like a thief in the night. But I had my first taste of (guilty) pleasure in reading. It was my secret for a long time. By the time Gatsby became a movie, I was already in love with Robert Redford.

The guilty pleasure I had in reading was interrupted by conversion to C.S. Lewis and all the evangelical books on the list of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship: Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There convinced me that I must not be smart enough to understand that God’s existence can be proven through the application of western logic. Still I persevered and read all of CS Lewis’ books. I think it is his beautiful writing that made me stay in that faith longer than I needed to. Who wouldn’t be ravished by Surprised by Joy? Or Till We Have Faces?

It was CSLewis’ friend, George McDonald that exploded my evangelical world: God widens the fences so that good and wild things can roam free. I started taking down the fences of my life and one by one allowed the wild things to roam free. I carried on a long correspondence with a friend about his favorite philosophers – Nietzche, Kierkegaard, Hammarskjold, Rilke, Espinoza, Bentham, Sartre – what it means to become an agnostic or existentialist. What it means to believe in anything. This, too, was my secret life. Albeit a bit pretentious, too, I must say.

Why secret? Because none of my friends were reading philosophy. They were more interested in trade books and Playboy. I was also interested in self-improvement books until my Tolkien-loving friend said that reading these books is the most self-indulgent thing. Embarrassed, I hid my books and I pretended to like Tolkien, too. I was young and impressionable. I wanted to be liked.

I graduated from self-help books to scholarly reads in my 30s and 40s. My love affair with books continued – this time no longer a guilty secret pleasure – but a beloved practice. I’m always happiest when I am reading a Coetzee, Achebe, Okri, a Richard Feynman, Alexie, Tabios,…oh, I could just fill the rest of this essay with nothing but authors that adorn my shelves. Currently, I’m having affairs with Luce Irigaray, Gina Apostol, Eric Gamalinda, Lara Stapleton. Next month it could be Prau.

Gioia is right; we should restore Reading to its central place in culture. I only hope that when national leaders talk about American decline in any area – whether in reading and literacy, math, or science – that our desire be informed by a more radically democratic worldview than what we have inherited from the liberal tradition. What does it say about us that the majority of the 100 top reads are white European or American writers? When Gioia mentioned, as an example, Robinson Crusoe as a must read, I thought of Coetzee deconstructing this signature novel of rugged individualism (male and white) in his own version of Crusoe in Foe.

Reading for reading’s sake, without critical thinking, might be a disservice to the culture, too, in the long run. Why else have the literary canon turned away so many? And how and what accounts for the other forms of literacy that are blossoming in the margins of the culture? Why do kids love Tupac’s poetry or Slam, the movie? Why would kids rather dance than read? Why would kids rather play computer games? Why would kids rather text or talk with their friends? How can I require my students to read 100-pages a week when they wouldn’t even read 20? Or they wouldn’t even buy the book?

I digress.

I’m all for reading. I’m all for being wild. I’m all for taking down fences.

Thank You! for reading this.

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