Saturday, December 1, 2007

Reading is living.

Readers and writers are by definition thoughtful people, reflective, questioning, analytical, sometimes anxious, often self-deprecating. One can’t help but question the entire enterprise of the life of the mind, especially when you realize that you’re happiest alone in a small room with a window, a book, and a sleeping cat. You don’t want to go anywhere in person, since you can go everywhere in your imagination. So one asks one’s self, is this healthy?

But some of us are lucky enough to share our passion with others, eye to eye. I had many such opportunities this autumn, and all were affirming and revelatory. Of course, some encounters were also nerve-wracking. It never fails to amaze me, what strangers will say. But you, know, if you accept invitations to moderate panels and speak, you are opening yourself to scrutiny and commentary.

And so it was one fine and chilly night when I spoke to a group of sharp-minded women in a beautifully restored old mansion on a college campus along Lake Michigan. The subject was one I was perhaps too ardent about: women, justice, and the environment. As always, I worked hard preparing for the talk, and brought along all kinds of notes and quotes and never once looked at them, which in this case, may have been a mistake. At any rate, I stumbled to a halt, and ask for questions. I enjoy this exchange, and on this night, my good listeners came up marvelously discerning queries. Pleased and relieved, I sat down, and signed books (such a many-faceted pleasure), and then found myself entangled in a rather thorny conversation with a skeptic. Frowning thoughtfully, she said that she couldn’t imagine spending so much time reading. Surely no woman with children (How did she know I have none, and how many does she have?) could do what I do day after day. And really, who would want to. Didn’t I feel cut off from real life? Wasn’t I even more distant from true experience than real writers because I was writing about writing, two levels away from breath and flesh and blood? Wasn’t it isolating? Artificial? Even, she seemed to imply, cowardly.

Who was this stranger who sensed the exact content of my own dark worries and fears? My own self-criticism, my own litany of failures. But because I’ve ruminated on this so much, I know that she is wrong. I know that reading opens you to life. Stories, poems, essays, history, science writing, and biography deepen your understanding of the living world, of humankind, of the cosmos. Reading engenders empathy, reveals hidden connections, gives words to inchoate feelings, breaks down the cell of the self, infuses daily chaos and tedium with meaning. You discover that many suffer the same doubt, fear, desire, anger, and hope that you do. You realize how fortunate you are when you read about the brutal lives and deaths of other. Reading extends your perception, stokes a sense of social responsibility, awakens compassion and appreciation for beauty, and provides a vessel for sorrow. Reading makes you a citizen of the world, a fuller, more conscious human being. I never feel completely alone, or at a loss, with books at hand. I know that I’m part of a great bright web of consciousness. The past is illuminated, as are countless ways of being and knowing, every conceivable sort of landscape, the wondrous world of animals, plants, stones, water, and sky. A reader contains multitudes.

My interlocutor was generous after all (and how knows the shade and shape of her regrets and unfulfilled yearning), and bought a copy of my anthology, In Our Nature. I signed it with a little frisson of mischievous pleasure: “Reading is living!”

Not many days later I heard the literary critic and writer Alan Cheuse speak to Scott Simon on NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” I admire Cheuse for his intelligent and passionate response to books, and very much like his edgy fiction. Here’s my Booklist review of his new book, The Fires:

Book critic Cheuse, whose resonant commentaries are heard on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, returns to fiction after the essay collection Listening to the Page (2001). Cheuse ignites fire in the mind and in the heart in a pair of tightly written novellas (the dialogue volleys as smoothly as that of a play) that form a yin-yang of grief and healing. In the title story, a woman suffering the debilitating hot flashes of menopause journeys to Uzbekistan to collect the body of her husband, who died in a fiery accident, and finds herself participating in a Hindu cremation. In "The Exorcism," a man struggles with his own conflagration of sorrow after his ex-wife, a brilliant jazz musician, dies of a heroin overdose. He then offers sanctuary to their college-student daughter, whose mourning turns dangerously incendiary. Startlingly beautiful in their searing radiance and molten heat, Cheuse's poetic tales of pain and forgiveness, loss and remembrance stoke our age-old fascination with fire as a force of destruction and renewal.

But my high regard went up several notches after this exchange:

Scott Simon asked Cheuse how much he reads, and Cheuse answers, four or five books a week. (If someone asked me that, I would say six or more, depending on the books.) Simon continued:

“How does all that reading affect your writing; do you have to be careful?”

And booklover Cheuse answers without missing a beat:

“I think being careful is the worst thing you can possibly do to yourself as a writer. You need to read as much as you possibly can, and live as much as you possibly can, and write as much as you possibly can. Reading is as much a part of life as any part. It’s life itself and it allows us to live other lives that we might not have lived if we hadn’t picked up those books. So, it seems to me to be a good human being you must read as much as you can. And certainly if you want to be a good writer you should read as much of the good stuff as you can get your hands on.”

My hero.

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