Monday, November 21, 2011

The Itch to Read, Part 5: Understanding

My previous blog concentrated on reading as the mechanism that transports us to places and times beyond our own experience, worlds in which we may be as strong, clever, witty, brave, or beautiful as we dream of being. But what would persuade us to pick up a book that takes us into a world where we're not even keen to visit, let alone live?

Curiosity. The desire to know.

Three years ago I decided to read Orwell's 1984. I'd somehow gotten through high school and over ten years of college without having to read it, and I knew it for an important political novel, an examination of life (if you can call it that) in a totalitarian state. How do people function when their most fundamental rights of choice are taken from them? I wanted to know, so I read the book. While I certainly can't claim to have enjoyed it as I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings or Watership Down, I came away with a deep admiration for Orwell's direct and vivid writing style and a determination never to vote for a political candidate who has not read and understood 1984.

It hasn't been easy for me to hold fast to this determination in today's political climate. Populist social conservatives may regard 1984, like all fiction, as a waste of time, and may never have bothered to read it. On the other hand, big-government liberals may have read it, but they don't seem to have understood it; they evidently think that with a push here or a tweak there, Big Brother can be turned into a good guy.

But here's where matters get sticky: a great novel, play, or poem may be "understood" in different ways by different readers. For me, Orwell's novel illuminates the downward spiral that starts when we feel the choices we make and the responsibilities that go with them are too heavy for our weak and ignorant shoulders to bear, and we want someone else, someone wiser and more powerful, to relieve us of the burden. But not everyone sees it my way. Some readers might see Othello as a cautionary tale of what happens when young people refuse to listen to their parents; others see, instead, a fascinating study of psychological deterioration, or the toxic effects of racism. Some readers might be drawn to The Iliad for its depiction of the relationships between gods and men, while others are more intrigued by its portrayal of the bonds forged between soldiers in wartime. What we find when we explore a good book speaks to who we are as individuals and the values and experiences we bring to the table. Readers and writers are constantly journeying to meet one another in the middle.

We learn most, I believe, when we're open to being changed in ways we do not expect, or reminded of some truth we might have forgotten. Curious about the lives women lead in nations where Islamic Law relegates them to the status of slaves, I turned to Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. What I saw most clearly wasn't the unjust oppression of women (though this was certainly there) but those same women's determination to assert their individuality and their right to learn in a society that attempts to deny them both. Seeking a story of oppression, I got a story of courage, and was reminded of the close connection between the two.

1984 is fiction. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a memoir. Yet both shed a light on a basic human truth: Imagination is a powerful organ, and it demands exercise, whatever stumbling blocks a government may throw in its path. When we read -- particularly when we read for understanding as well as pleasure -- we are flexing the muscles of liberty.

Frederick Douglass is right. Reading is freedom.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Itch to Read, Part 4: Adventure and Escape

My students always tell me that one of the chief joys of reading is "escape." For me, escape means the chance to see the world through the eyes of someone different from you -- different in race, background, nationality or ethnicity, maybe even species.

I love becoming a dragon. When one is feeling small and insignificant and set upon by the world, what can be more satisfying than imagining oneself as a mighty creature with a thirty-foot wingspan, capable of incinerating enemies with a mere sigh? Often, if I want to become a dragon, I have to change my gender. In children's and even adult fantasy literature, female dragons can be hard to find, unless I want to read Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, which I don't. (Ugh! I still remember what a dreadful movie Eragon was.) But that's another wonderful thing about reading: for a time, I can even become male, and I can take to the sky as Cressida Crowell's lovable Toothless, or J.R.R. Tolkien's arrogant and deadly Smaug (darned shame about that vulnerable spot) or George R.R. Martin's fierce black Drogon.

I do wish I might fly as female, and I'm actively looking for fantasy tales with dragon heroines, largely because I'll soon begin work on such a story myself. A duology by one of my favorite fantasy authors, Robin Hobb -- Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven -- beckons me from my bookshelf. Yet I have to say, "Later. When I've finished exploring Elantris and surviving Westeros." After all, I can't read everything at once, though I do try; usually I alternate between four different books.

Most of them are fantasy novels, because they offer extreme escape while addressing a basic need we all know, to which we can all relate. The goal of most heroes and heroines in fantasy literature, whether dragon or dwarf, human or hobbit, is to find their power, to discover what is extraordinary in themselves, a strength that will help them thrive. Often this power comes as a surprise. Bilbo Baggins doesn't know he's built for adventure; he is more concerned with being on time for dinner. Yet when a visiting dwarf questions his fitness for the dangerous task at hand, he's all ready to try his hand at adventure, and throughout The Hobbit, his success continues to surprise him. Hermione Granger doesn't know what to do with the massive intellect and the magical gifts she has been given. But when she discovers a race of mythical beings trapped in slavery, she makes up her mind to help them, and persists even when everyone around her, even her friends, is ridiculing her and telling her to stop. As characters like these astonish themselves, we may wonder, however old we are, what surprises might lie waiting in our own hearts and minds. Even as we escape, we're working with longings at the heart of human nature -- longings to be exceptional and to find some path to victory, great or small, in a harsh and inhospitable world.

A little while ago, my interest in dragons working upon me, I picked up an intriguing novel by Jo Walton called Tooth and Claw, which is basically a nineteenth-century British novel, with all the conventions and problems typical of nineteenth-century British novels -- patterned specifically after the works of Anthony Trollope -- in which all the characters are dragons. If you're wondering how such a thing could possibly work, trust me, it does. Parsons and servants have their wings bound. Sickly children are devoured by their elders (it's called "consumption") and when an old family patriarch dies, his corpse, along with his gold, is divided among his heirs. Maidens have gold scales, and when they blush pink, it's either a sign of true love or a mark of indiscretion. So as I read this book, my new enthusiasm for fantasy literature intersected with a much older fascination of mine: the realistic past, the worlds inhabited by the likes of Jane Eyre and Ebenezer Scrooge. My standard rule is that the further removed a story's setting from my own place and time, the more keen I will be to read that story.

Time travel is still a science fiction thing. The closest we can come to experiencing the past is to pick up a book. My father loves history books; I prefer fiction, either set or (better) written in the past. Not only can I learn about environments different from my own, but here, as in fantasy literature, I can become exceptional in ways where I fall short in the real world. Despite my doughy frame, I can have the strength of Achilles. I can have the sparkling wit and grace of Elizabeth Bennet, the generosity and understanding of Anne Elliot, the dignity of Dorothea Brooke, the raw courage of Marian Halcombe. I seek out heroes and (especially) heroines with at least one outstanding quality I particularly admire, and then I step into their shoes and let them show me around their worlds. Maybe I can pick up a few tips from them.

Through the pages I escape my own routines and embark on adventures that might prove too much for me should I meet them in the real world; yet I do get an idea or two on how I might triumph over real adversity. (What would Bilbo Baggins do?) And when I come back to myself and the here and now, I'm always just a little bit different for having seen through their eyes.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Itch to Read, Part 3: Advice for the Non-Reader

One of the greatest challenges a reader can face is understanding why some people don't read.

After all, aren't there so many good reasons to read? In all the classes I teach, I ask my students who are readers to tell me what they get out of the activity. Almost invariably they mention that reading offers them an escape from real-life stress; this is the first answer I get. Other excellent responses follow: reading improves vocabulary; reading broadens their perspectives on the world and encourages them to relate to situations and people they would never encounter in real life; reading helps them understand problems. From my students' mouths I hear all the reasons why I love to read.

Yet if reading offers understanding, adventure, and escape, why do people reject it? Since I often have as many non-readers as readers in my classes, it's my business to find an answer to that question. I've asked my friends and fellow teachers for help, and this is the best we can come up with:

Many young people grow up in bookless houses. They never see their parents reading. Excursions to the library are not part of their routine; bedtime stories are unknown. The only place where they encounter books is school. Most of us associate school, at least the part that takes place in the classroom, with work rather than fun. Those who read only at school tend to associate reading with work, something to be abandoned when leisure time presents itself. No matter how good the books they read in school may be, reading is still work in their minds.

The key to helping a non-reader become a reader is breaking this association, and connecting reading with fun.

This new connection isn't likely to happen if non-readers leap straight to Moby Dick or War and Peace -- unless they're especially interested in marine life or Russian history. Non-readers should begin reading to their interests, those things they already enjoy. Are they interested, for example, in sports? Then instead of getting all their sports news from watching CNN Sports Center, they should try reading Sports Illustrated, a good magazine with articles that go into depth and detail about their subjects. Over time -- this doesn't happen quickly -- as non-readers read about things they enjoy, they start to feel more comfortable with the printed word; they may move on from SI to books by or about sports heroes. They may never read Moby Dick, but at least they start to see what reading has to offer them: deeper understanding and exploration, and even the chance to step into the shoes of people they admire.

Then, when they have families of their own, their children will grow up seeing their parents with their noses in books and magazines.

And so the race of readers marches forward into new generations, even as prophets of doom continue to bray that print culture is dead.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Itch to Read, Part 2: The Making of a Reader

One of the truths I stress in my college Freshman Composition classes is that good readers are made, not born. The ability to read well, to learn from and take joy in the printed word, is not some gift a benevolent fairy bestows on us while we're in our cradle; rather, it is a skill which we develop with time and practice.

Naturally, some of my students wonder how I became a reader, what combination of factors helped me to develop the skill. I have to acknowledge that it wasn't a simple, short jump from here to there, and not all (or even most) of the credit goes to me. I did receive one important blessing at my birth: reading parents. Most of the time, reading parents will raise new readers, by example more than by pressure. As my infant awareness sharpened, I saw that my parents often buried their noses in books, and that well-stocked bookshelves lined the walls of our home. So I grew up thinking of reading as a basic, normal activity -- just something people did. It never occurred to me that some people didn't read, until I would visit friends' houses and wonder where all the books were. Though I would try to have a good time, I couldn't wait to get back home where things were normal.

In my younger days I never described myself as a reader; reading was "just something I did." I preferred other activities, such as acting out wild, elaborate melodramas with my "Barbie action figures," but I read anyway, because not reading wasn't normal. As Scout Finch puts it in To Kill a Mockingbird, "One does not love breathing." As it happens, To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the first books I took active pleasure in reading, one of several books I read during my middle-school years because I had seen the movie version, loved it, and wanted to know more. I discovered that the books could take me deeper into stories that already intrigued me. I now realize I may have cheated myself a little, because I did not come to these books unspoiled; the images and voices from the movies were already imprinted on my mind. I can't help wondering what my Atticus Finch might have looked like, if I had not seen Gregory Peck first.

Around this time, my parents, running out of patience with my "Barbie action figures," started to bring pressure to bear, to get me to read more. From this I learned another important lesson -- to listen to Mom and Dad because they knew what they were talking about. Mom recommended Jane Eyre to me, and I loved it. Dad pointed me toward an abridged (hey, I was only in the eighth grade) edition of Les Miserables, and I loved it. I never knew my parents to steer me wrong, and soon I was asking them to recommend authors as well as books. Mom led me into historical fiction by way of Taylor Caldwell and Anya Seton, while Dad was a guide through Greek mythology. By the end of high school, I was a full-fledged reader, and I spent my college years gobbling up Charles Dickens and getting to know J. R. R. Tolkien.

So I admit I had a lot of help becoming a reader. I adopted reading in much the same way we adopt many of our parents' values, out of trust in their wisdom. But at a certain point, as we put those values to the test, they cease to be our parents' values and become our own. My reading preferences today are very different from Mom's or Dad's -- though occasionally I may still take a recommendation from them.

But what about those children who do not grow up with reading parents? Next time, The Itch to Read Part 3: Advice for the Non-Reader.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Itch to Read, Part 1: Frederick Douglass

In his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, one of the most emotionally powerful pieces of 19th century American literature, the great abolitionist leader Douglass describes how he came to understand his position in the world and the injustice of it, and felt the first stirrings of what would become a firmly ingrained determination to be free. As a boy he came into the hands of a Baltimore couple, and the wife, as yet inexperienced in the "art" of slaveholding, started to teach him the alphabet. Her husband commanded her to stop, declaring that if Douglass should learn how to read, "it would forever unfit him to be a slave."

"I now understood," Douglass writes, "what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty -- to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man . . . I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read."

For Douglass, reading held the key to illuminating the secrets of not only freedom but humanity itself. To read was to understand possibility, potential. True, his autobiography makes clear that the gift of literacy had a dark side; often, he writes, he would have been glad to "get rid of thinking," for a sense of the wideness of the world inevitably brought pain to an intelligent but still enslaved youth. But reading provided the engine that propelled Douglass on his journey toward freedom.

Reading was a life-or-death matter.

How many of us in the new millennium know first-hand the horror of young Douglass' existence? The closest we free middle-class Americans can come to it is to read his autobiography and experience, for a little while, the world he knew. Many of us turn to books in search of escape, but we gain our best perspective and understanding when, at least on occasion, we let those books take us to places that aren't so pretty.

Even those of us who love to read may not quite grasp what reading could mean to someone in Douglass' situation. Here in the USA in 2011, literacy is the norm. We take reading for granted. When we stumble onto someone who cannot read, we're surprised, even shocked. But we have problems of our own. As another great 19th century American writer, Mark Twain, points out, "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them."

To many of us are deliberate illiterates. Books and magazines on every conceivable subject surround us on every side, offering us the chance to deepen our understanding of any area in which we might have an interest, but all too often we leave them alone. What curiosity we might feel proves fleeting, too weak to push past the surface before we're ready to move on to the next thing. What Douglass looked on as empowering and liberating, we see as drudgery and tedium.

And so we slip on mental chains -- the chains Douglass was so desperate to throw off -- as easily and casually as we might slip on a T-shirt.

By "we," I hasten to say, I mean society as a whole, which is allowing print culture to die a slow death. I'm fully aware that countless individuals still relish an afternoon with a good book. I'm one of them. And so I'm devoting this series of blogs to the pleasures and lessons to be found in reading -- apart from writing, my favorite thing to do.

Coming up in Part 2: The making of a reader.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


For a libertarian, the Prohibition years are an especially shameful chapter in American history, a stretch of time when the belief in the power of government to legislate human goodness was enshrined in our Constitution. As a historian interviewed in Ken Burns' three-part documentary Prohibition points out, the 18th Amendment was the first Constitutional amendment that limited freedom rather than expanding it.

Yet both the documentary and the historical period it details raise complicated questions, which we're still faced with today: how do we find a workable solution to a genuine social problem? Is there ever one hard, fast, one-size-fits-all answer to problems like alcohol and drug abuse, childhood obesity, or widespread divorce?

Burns' film makes clear in its first episode, "A Nation of Drunkards," that excessive drinking was widespread throughout the century before Prohibition, and that it gave rise to other evils, most notably domestic violence. The "drunkard culture" accentuated the sharp gender divisions set in place by the notion of "separate spheres," the public and the private world, for men and women. Husbands and wives and courting couples did not drink together, save perhaps for the modest glass of wine at mealtimes. Rather, men gathered in saloons to drink away the pressures of work, while women waited at home; all too often, the men would return home full of fight, ready to pound on their wives and even their children. When advocates of Temperance (a huge number of them women) declared that "alcohol destroys homes," they could point to legions of examples to support their claim, examples that shed a blaring light on the greatest tragedy of addiction: the erosion of the addict's capacity for empathy.

The problem of alcohol abuse, then, was real; few could have denied it. The argument lay in what should be done about it. Some -- the wisest, in this libertarian's point of view -- advocated a case-by-case approach, in which churches and private citizens and organizations would take the lead in helping alcoholics hop on the wagon and stay there. Other favored a broader, wide-sweeping approach that took the decision out of individuals' hands. Instead of working to reduce people's demand for alcohol, these Temperance activists advocated cutting off their supply -- the simplest solution on the surface, and so, the solution that eventually won the day.

Similar battles rage today, and not only concerning the obvious issue of the War on Drugs. Childhood obesity is a problem, most would agree; as youngsters get less exercise and eat more fattening foods, they're afflicted in increasing numbers with health problems usually associated with adults, such as heart disease and diabetes. No one wants to see unhealthy children. But while some would encourage greater education in nutrition that would empower parents and children to make healthier choices, others favor simply taking vending machines that sell candy bars out of schools and other public places, and banning the use of trans fats in restaurant cooking. And so the old Prohibition story goes on: do we allow individuals to decide for themselves, or do we rush to make decisions for them in the firm conviction that we know what's best?

If the history of Prohibition teaches us nothing else, it shows us that where demand exists, supply will follow, whether or not that supply is legal. Freedom is a chaotic thing. Individuals will not always make the best, wisest choices, and they cannot expect the government to step in to protect them from the consequences of their mistakes. Until human nature can be made perfectible by external means -- hint: it never will be -- we must accept that tragedies will occur, and excessive behavior will sometimes destroy lives.

Should we try to prevent as many of these tragedies as possible? Of course. But who is best qualified to do so? Nearly always, the closer the person or group is to the problem, the more likely they are to come up with solutions that actually work. Friends and neighbors are often the best resort. Schools can lend a hand, as can churches, private charities, and even local governments. We are our brother's keepers, but our charity is usually most effective when extended to the individual brothers we have seen, rather than an abstract mass of nameless, faceless brothers we have not seen. To abuse an old cliche, elephants are best eaten a bite at a time.

We may not think of Alexander Hamilton, the great Federalist leader and champion of strong centralized government, as especially libertarian-friendly, but he does offer the following piece of wisdom dear to this libertarian's heart:

"In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution."

Mr. Hamilton, the last word is yours.