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.