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.

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