Tag Archives: reading

A stack of books, some read, some to-be-read. Many are memoir, but there is realistic fiction and history and poetry. Titles include The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai, Call Us What We Carry by Amanda Gorman, Links by Nuruddin Farah, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, How to Fix a Broken Record by Amena Brown, and Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Read the Books

When I was about thirteen, my mom gave me a book titled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. I believe it was the first time I had ever read a story from the point of view of a person of color (which now that I know better is more than a little shocking.) From the first chapter I was blown away, feeling like I was living in her story. My easy delight with the first part shifted as I began to wrestle with difficult revelations as her story became more complicated. It made a big impact on me. It was the beginning of a lifelong love of Angelou’s work, and the start of a reading journey seeking to understand other people’s stories.

I grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s in a small town of about 1200 people in eastern South Dakota, where the cultural differences were whether you lived on a farm or in town; your age; if you were male or female (only two choices); which church you attended; and how many generations your family had lived there. Racial diversity was nearly nonexistent. All my information about Black people for many years came from TV. Fat Albert, Sesame Street, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and The Redd Foxx show were my guides as to what “life” looked like for Black people out in the world. Star Trek was my guide as to what race relations would look like in the future. Imperfect as they were, these shows helped me be aware of a world outside my homogeneous hometown, where everyone looked alike (although I can attest not everyone felt like they fit in.)

The problem with watching a movie or TV show is that they rarely take you inside a character’s mind. You might see how someone responds to events, but unless the narrator is filling you in, you can only guess what the character’s internal experience is like. In my own life even ordinary activities, such as planning what to do on a day off, is a wild churn of memories of past days off, hopes of what might be accomplished, calculations of what is most important, ideas of what might be fun or relaxing, good and bad takes (probably bad tbh) on how much time I have and how well I will use it, and fears about feeling judged on the outcome of it all. This churn is invisible to anyone watching me map out my day, and I can’t perfectly express it in writing, but the written sharing of it may have gotten you closer to my experience. All of us are big stories walking around wrapped up in more or less inscrutable skins. We make assumptions about other people as we look at those skins, but we can’t experience another’s life from inside until we accept the invitation of someone offering us their story.

What I am saying is, read the books. Read books that take you outside your understanding and comfort zone. Read books that take you inside a life on a reservation (for instance, The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich), or the life of a refugee child (Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri), or the life of a young professional of color fighting for a level playing field (I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown). It will likely be uncomfortable at times. Exercising to build strength is often uncomfortable and so is learning algebra and many other things. Discomfort is not bad, it is just something you feel as you stretch and grow. Becoming aware of another’s point of view does not diminish your own, although it might put it into a more realistic perspective.

Reading books might not change the world, but when we seek to grow in understanding we change OUR world, especially if our everyday life is populated with people who look just like us. Once we become curious about and sensitive to lives other than the ones immediately around us, we are more equipped to connect with and relate to actual people who are different than us, whose lives are as richly complicated and full of beauty and sorrow as our own, who we can no longer discount vaguely as “other.” And that is when we find ourselves in “I/Thou” relationships as described by Martin Buber, and where we become people capable of Agape love for our neighbors as Jesus commanded.

I can do better, so I am going to keep reading and keep connecting. We can all do better. We need to do better. And one small but powerful way to do this is by opening up a book. I bet there is a librarian in your community who would love to help you out with that.

Reading II

It is textbook season again at State Services for the Blind. Today, I got to finish the college history text, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves & the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia, by Woody Holton. I got the last chapter and a half, and the Epilogue. Reading history silently tends to make me sleepy, but reading a good text out loud is, weirdly, one of my favorite things. I learn so much! Also I love reading about things from the Revolutionary War that have value today: for instance, be wary of fighting a war on unfamiliar terrain against a foe defending their homeland, and watch out for those grassroots movements during a recession. This was a very good book. Holton gives us a  bit of a cynical take on our founding fathers and how things shook down back in the pre-Revolutionary day, which was just what I was in the mood for. Except for the footnotes, which were a pain in the breeches, I enjoyed reading it for three and a half hours today. I had to make a lot of corrections to my work, because I found in this text, as in many academic works, the author will zig when I was expecting a zag, tripping me up. I’ll be reading along and then a sentence or two later there I will be in my little recording booth, saying out loud, “Oh. Ohhhh! That’s what you meant.” Erase. Re-record. There are a lot of ways to err, as a reader. You can mispronounce a word, stumble or stutter within a word, change the meaning with intonation, leave too long a pause as you try to figure out if the footnote is explanatory or a citation, determining whether it needs to be read…and the list goes on. Even when I am (totally not sarcastically) having a ball reading, I’ll hit a sentence now and then that will get me swearing and threatening physical harm to the author because although lovely, it was not written with audiotext in mind. For instance, consider the following footnote from page 203:

“Lee, in fact, lost two elections in April 1776. After his defeat in Richmond County, his supporters ran him in neighboring Lancaster, where he lost again. The April 1776 voting was something of an electoral massacre for the Carter family. In addition to Rober Wormely Carter and his cousin Carter Braxton, both of whom actively opposed Independence, two other Carters–Charles of Corotoman and Charles of Ludlow were also defeated. The Carters were among the wealthiest families in Virginia, and their unprecedented repudiation at the polls seemed to reflect the ascendancy of antielitism.” (emphasis mine)

That particular finishing sentence caught me on tape in the middle saying, “You have GOT to be kidding.” Erase. Re-record. There were several easier sentences that gave me even MORE trouble, because once I screw something up, I find chances are at least 50% of the time I will screw it up multiple times in the same or different ways. Holton made it all up to me with this next little passage from page 219:

“Between 1782 and 1806, Virginia allowed slaveowners to emancipate their slaves without legislative approval, and some did so. Between 1790 and 1810, the state’s free black population more than doubled, largely as a result of emancipation. George Washington provided in his will that his slaves be freed upon the death of his widow (after he died, Martha Washington, prudently deciding not to make the slaves’ freedom contingent upon her death, freed them immediately).”

So here, I am picturing the reading of the will, and a house slave in the corner thinking, “Upon her death, huh?” and Martha thinking, “That’s terrific, George. Thank you so much…” and out loud saying, “No worries, folks! Freedom for everyone! No waiting!” I had to re-record that one because I got the giggles. Makes you wonder how often Martha had to help George out with practical thinking during the presidency. We’ll never know.

So while it isn’t parasailing, or a night at the comedy club, this volunteer gig has its moments. Besides, where else would I get to use words like “sobriquet” AND hang out with the nicest state employees in Minnesota?

Related Post: Reading, or How This All Started.

The First Step

I am sorry I haven’t been around for a few days. I have been in Canada. In the 1960’s. In fact, part of me is still there because I am about 200 pages from the end of the way the crow flies, by Ann-Marie MacDonald. I could say a lot about the book, the author’s amazing use of language and the way she gets so completely inside the heads of her characters and her reader, but until I get to the very end, I hesitate to say more about it. So I am going to stick with a little problem I have: gluttony. Yes, yes, gluttony with chocolate, gluttony with TV marathons of Dr. Who and Project Runway, but our topic here today is book gluttony. I own stacks of books I haven’t read, and my (barnes & noble) nook is loaded with many more. Even with all those waiting for me, I still seek out bookstores and the library (LOVE the library!) for more, more, more. But that isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that I always start a book thinking that I am a normal person who can read a few chapters, decide if I like it, set it aside and get stuff done, then return to it if I like it enough. I am not a normal person. Even a pretty disappointing book can pull me from my real life and bury me. I am the nut without insight who thinks, “Just a few pages, what can be the harm?” until my husband comes home eight hours later to find me mortified with the lunch AND the breakfast dishes still strewn about, no idea of dinner, and quite possibly still in my jammies. To avoid this happening, I turn to evening reading, which all too frequently becomes reading into the wee hours, which results the next day in sluggish reflexes, sluggish thinking, and probably more dishes on the counter. I am a binge reader, able to go days, even a week or more without a book, but once one is opened I’m a goner. Even if I can force myself to put a marker between the pages and attempt to interact with my family, it is a sham. It might look like I am there, talking, cooking, helping build a deck, but that is just a shell in my clothing, walking around with the minimum consciousness needed to function. The rest of my brain is a dog straining against the leash, panting to get back to that intoxicating word-kibble. I try to justify my habit. I claim that carefully reading a variety of works helps me to become a better writer and I believe this is true. I just don’t think that all of the reading I get swept away with is helpful. Some of it is utter crap. I have a good life–strike that–I have a great life. Why my great life doesn’t tether me more tightly than a half-assed plot and a handful of two-dimensional characters is a great mystery to me. It hints of a character flaw. So in the interest of continuous self-improvement, I am determined to leave my unfinished book where it is until the errands have been run, the to-do list completed, the job boards have been scanned and dinner and dishes taken care of. But my thoughts creep back to the protagonist…Focus! Eye on the prize! Except this book isn’t crap at all, in fact reading it might make me a better person…Shake it off! You can do this! Right. Yes. I can do this and it will be better for all involved. I can become a better person by reading later. Now, I need to become a better person by not reading. My name is Lynnette and I am a Bibliomaniac. Thank you for listening and wish me luck.