Why We Read: The Case for Books as a Means to Many Ends

Why We Read

Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash

If hell exists, I know that for me, it’s a place without books. Even when I am just out running errands, I always carry a book in my bag with me. You never know when you might have to wait for something, and for me, those stretches of time – brief as they may be – are another opportunity to immerse myself in a world far away from a waiting room.

I am a bibliophile, a lover of books. When I was choosing which graduate school to attend, I admit: I made my choice based on the school’s library. The university rare book room possessed a treasure trove of materials dating back to before the invention of the Gutenberg printing press and plenty of early printed books from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. One of the most remarkable experiences I had while conducting research was with a book printed in the 1550s. While just being able to work with such a book thrilled me, what made it a once-in-a-lifetime experience was that the original owner of the book had written notes in the margins. Their marginalia, written in a sixteenth-century hand, made me feel as if we were reading the book together. Even five centuries apart, I noted his reactions to the passage I was reading, and found myself in conversation with the past.

Decades of reading later, I still find it amazing that I can read a book that was originally written in another language and thousands of years ago. I read my favorite Greek play, Antigone by Sophocles, and while the story it tells is about an ancient battlefield, its human emotions and the desire to oppose tyranny speaks to me still. And I can pick up such a book anytime – I have to go to a museum to interact with any other piece of art from that time period.

Books are an opportunity for me to gain some understandings about other Americans’ experiences, even as I recognize that I cannot live them. I didn’t grow up as a black man, and yet I can read James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates and learn from them.

When I have been through periods of tremendous loss, I have turned to books in order to have those who have been through it show me the way. Max Porter’s novel, Grief Is the Thing with Feathersand Elizabeth Alexander’s luminous memoir, The Light of the Worldboth held a light for me when I felt trapped in darkness. Alexander, so vulnerable in the telling of the loss of her husband, lit a path for me as I mourned.

And reading has also allowed me the opportunity to be a better global citizen. Gil Courtemanche took me to Rwanda, and his novel, A Sunday by the Pool in Kigali, allowed me to eavesdrop on those who took shelter in a Kigali hotel while, out in the streets, chaos reigned. Rebecca West gave me an enormous background in Yugoslavia, so that when I read S. by Slavenka Drakulic it shattered me when I saw what became of Bosnian women during the war. And Sara Novic’s Girl at War gave to me hope that other women in the former Yugoslavia had found ways to resist.

My daughters are also readers. All three of us are huge fans of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her Americanah allowed us the chance to understand one immigrant’s experience in the United States, while We Should All Be Feminists gave us the manifesto that expressed our multi-generational feminism.

The greatest gift that books have given to me, however, is relief from fear and stress. Recently, being able to escape into books allowed me to endure some frightening days. I live in a part of Florida from which I had to evacuate for Hurricane Irma. We were fortunate enough to go stay at a relative’s winter home in Orlando. The track of the hurricane switched back and forth several times. By the time it hit central Florida, we were under curfew in Orlando and couldn’t move, even when Irma hit the house where I was staying.

The winds began to pick up in the late afternoon on Sunday, September 10. By nine o’clock PM, six hours before the main part of the hurricane was due to go through the area, the wind ceaselessly howled. When I opened the front door to look outside, I was drenched by rain blowing sideways into the house.

I couldn’t sleep at all.

Outside, the wind surrounded the house like banshees, each of them keening and wailing as they bashed against the windows and doors. For twelve hours, the wind was relentless. As the sun lit up the world outside the house, the last blasts banged along the roof. It sounded like giants stomping around, and I wondered how much of the roof would be intact when we dared venture outside.

I had a copy of Ken Follett’s A Column of Fire. It’s the third book in Follett’s medieval series, and I was delighted to open the book to see that it began in 1558: the year that Elizabeth Tudor ascended the throne and became Elizabeth I. All during the approach of Irma on Friday and Saturday, I read it. On Saturday night, while the hurricane raged outside our doors, banging at the windows, I continued reading. Follett took me to France, the Netherlands, Hispaniola, and Scotland and England. I immersed myself in reading, focusing on the world that Follett had constructed for me. When the storm passed mid-morning Monday, I was just closing the book on 900-plus pages of my companion.

When I wasn’t reading Follett, I read poetry. Elizabeth Alexander’s edited collection of poems, How Lovely the Ruins, was packed with poems “for difficult times.”

Barn’s burnt down-

Now

I can see the moon.

wrote Masahide, and the poem comforted me in my fear of what would be waiting for us at our house by the beach. But no matter. I focused on the idea that regardless of what was left behind would be okay.

Books eased all that was restless and afraid.

Even now, back at home we are still without power, internet, phone service – the modern conveniences we have told ourselves we cannot live without. But I have a bag of books with me in exile, which comforts me while I wait to go home.

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