The Intimacy of Reading

For a number of years, Susan and I gave Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day to friends for Christmas.  We agreed it was simply the best book we had read in years, immersing the reader in African-American culture, particularly the contrast of urban and country experience, not to mention more general themes of faith and reason, folk tradition and Shakespeare, masculine and feminine self-fashioning, modernist narrative disjuncture and traditional storytelling.

A recent survey of EOU’s English majors demonstrated that they chose their course of study largely because of their love of reading and writing. Have you studied the photographic portraits by mel buffington that adorn the walls of our classrooms in Loso?  They are all famous writers who have visited our campus. How long in the west have we pursued this love of ours, so mysterious to the general public?  What is the history of this love of books, so steady over time, as no other love can be?

I was struck by a number of themes and passages in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve:  How the World Became Modern, which I received as a Christmas present from my wife, so I included some lengthy quotations to give you something of the flavor of the book.

Does the following sound familiar?

Altogether, by the fourth century CE, there were twenty-eight public libraries in Rome.  The structures, all of which have been destroyed, evidently followed the same general pattern, one that would be familiar to us.

There was a large reading room adjoining smaller rooms in which the collections were stored in numbered bookcases.  The reading room, either rectangular or semicircular in shape and sometimes lit through a circular opening in the roof, was adorned with busts of celebrated writers:  Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, among others.  The statues functioned, as they do for us, as an honorific, a gesture toward the canon of writers whom every civilized person should know.  But in Rome they may have an additional significance, akin to the masks of ancestors that Romans traditionally kept in their houses and that they donned on commemorative occasions.  That is, they were signs of access to the spirits of the dead, symbols of the spirits that the books enabled readers to conjure up.   (61-62)

Our easily recognizable reading rooms date back 1600 years! It is a special pleasure, at least for me, to sit and read in the reference room of Pierce Library, currently with a view of Mt. Emily glistening, snow light flooding in for books and talk. But it took another 1000 years, after the libraries of ancient Rome, for a poet to articulate what reading might mean to us.

Greenblatt goes on to show that by the mid-fourteenth century, “[a] gifted scholar, Petrarch began to search for ancient texts that had been forgotten.  He was not the first to do so, but he managed to invest this search with a new, almost erotic urgency and pleasure, superior to all other treasure seeking”:

Gold, silver, jewels, purple garments, houses built of marble, groomed estates, pious paintings, caparisoned steeds, and other things of this kind offer a mutable and superficial pleasure; books give delight to the very marrow of one’s bones.  They speak to us, consult with us, and join with us in a living and intense intimacy.   (118-19)

I have to say that books reach to the marrow of my bones.  We have books, sometimes in piles, in almost every room in our house.  It’s time to simplify but we would be lonely without them. We cannot choose what books we might give away.  In fact, we don’t like to lend books because they usually do not return, like children who have gone off to college.  We miss them in a visceral way.

Our books are a comfort, always with us.  If someone mentions an idea, we can readily call up a living book, no matter how long ago we read it.  My daughter is heading off to Argentina in a study abroad program with a social justice emphasis.  So I just pulled off my shelf here in my office Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I first read a quarter century ago.

When my wife and I first started dating, we discovered that we had that book in common.  It was love at first read.  We agreed that no book had a more profound effect on our visions of ourselves as composition teachers.  I have this ability to read and write—I can read and write the hell out of just about anything.  I am not too good for anything else, so I try to offer that to the world to help as many students as possible who may be less proficient readers and writers.  If they improve, then I feel I have done something good for them and for society.  It is how I try to help, my quiet form of social justice.

Unfortunately, the life of a book and even the scholar can be precarious in fanatical times:  Books and the intellectual elite are usually the first targets of demagogues.  Today (January 16, 2013), the NRA called President Obama an elitist hypocrite; early in the election campaign Rick Santorum said Obama was an elitist for suggesting all young Americans should go to college.  (However, the intellectual elite are also the traditional leaders of revolution against perceived tyranny [I am not thinking of the NRA or Rick Santorum here], although it often does not prevent them from becoming tyrants themselves if they are successful.)

Here is a famous case of radical censorship and misogyny from the fifth century CE involving the world’s greatest scholar at that time, Hypatia, who was based in the world’s greatest library (known as “the Museum”) in Alexandria, Egypt:

Hypatia was the daughter of a mathematician, one of the Museum’s famous scholars-in-residence.  Legendarily beautiful, as a young woman, she had become famous for her attainments in astronomy, music, mathematics, and philosophy.  Students came from great distance to study the works of Plato and Aristotle under her tutelage.

Wrapped in the traditional philosopher’s coat, called a tribon, and moving about the city in a chariot, Hypatia was one of Alexandria’s most visible public figures. . . .  Her easy access to the ruling elite did not mean that she meddled in politics. . . .  [W]ith the agitation against the Jews [whom the Christian patriarch Cyril demanded be expelled from Alexandria] it must have become clear that the flames of fanaticism were not going to die down.

Hypatia’s support for Orestes’ refusal to expel the Jewish population [Orestes was the secular governor of the region] may help explain what happened next.  Rumors began to circulate that her absorption in astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy—so strange, after all, in a woman—was sinister:  she must be a witch, practicing black magic.  In March 415 the crowd, whipped into frenzy by one of Cyril’s henchmen, erupted. Returning to her house, Hypatia was pulled from her chariot and taken to a church that was formerly a temple to the emperor. . . .  There, after she was stripped of her clothing, her skin was flayed off with broken bits of pottery.  The mob then dragged her corpse outside the city walls and burned it.  Their hero Cyril was eventually made a saint.  (91-93)

Not everyone understands our love of books:   I mentioned to a colleague in another discipline how much reading means to me, how it gives me solace, a private place away from the world. She said that sounded sad, displayed a failure to properly engage the world.  For her, that intimacy with living books was mysterious or unfathomable.

Susan and I have always wished we had a bumper sticker that says “Born to Read.”  We became English professors in order to stay close to books—we became composition teachers in order to help others become engaged with academic reading and writing in order to attain that advantage in America, where adept readers, writers, and thinkers will always be in demand.

For Further Reading

Freire, Paulo.  Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  New York:  Continuum, 1989.

Greenblatt, Stephen.  The Swerve:  How the World Became Modern.  New York:  Norton, 2011.  Print.

Naylor, Gloria.  Mama Day.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 1988.  Print.