Earlier today I tweeted a link to an article on The Atlantic in which Azar Nafisi, author of The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, discusses a James Baldwin quote, which she chooses as one of her favorite written passages. The quote, taken from Baldwin’s interview with Studs Terkel, Chicago, 1961, reads:
You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discovered it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.
It reminds me largely of another quote, much younger than this one, that I first heard in the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2006), which goes like this:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.
I have no doubt that the former must have been the source to Bennett’s line. For the longest time, I was in the belief that Bennett had originated the idea, not yet having heard of Baldwin in high school. Nonetheless, whether Bennett was the first, Baldwin was the first, or someone else did it entirely, the general idea behind these two quotes is pretty much been the rationale for my desire to teach Literature. I don’t necessarily mean this in a formal classroom setting, but even in the general encouragement of reading among my peers.
Those of you who encounter me in school or visit me in my apartment have likely taken note of my abundance of extra-curricular readings, and, especially if we are friends, my suggestions as to which book you should pick up next. I am typically eager to lend my books, even when I have not read them yet myself, and while I have regretfully lost track of some of them, I hope that they are picked up again one day and loved by someone else. They will serve their purpose. If you have ever wondered why I have chosen Literature my life’s labor, over anything law or medicine or business or anything else, it is encapsulated in the two quotes above and the Nafisi article.
Stories have a very certain power, and Nafisi notes that the power only begins once a reader starts connecting with the book. She even suggests that the connection can even be negative; you can hate the book you’re reading, but that already proves you have a connection. In high school, I struggled through several novels before I felt a real connection with the book. One summer, I decided to pick up Golding’s The Lord of the Flies and finished it realizing that I did not like it as much as I would have wanted. I could not feel a connection with the characters, the poor young boys who transform into savages. But there was an inkling of that connection. I continued to read again and again and again through different books and places and times, and then one day, I discovered Junot Diaz. I opened the first pages of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, not really sure of what about to happen. And curiously, I found myself in one who was not myself. I felt that I could relate, at last, to a boy growing up somewhere he didn’t think was home and seeking the comforts of science-fiction and fantasy not exactly to escape, but to deal with harsh reality. I read over two days, followed this brief, wondrous life, and ended it, feeling finally that solid connection, a tugging at the heart.
Among my peers, I’ve observed a general dislike or an apathy for Literature. Some even detest the activity of reading, dismissing it as either ‘just not for them’ or ‘something that could drive them crazy.’ Indeed, the popularity of technology, multimedia, and even film adaptation as a cinematic genre (well, one might argue a watered-down genre of adaptation nowadays) hint at a turning away from the written word, whose associations with other words are meant to form the images that generate the films in our heads. Criticism on the youth today with regard to their cognitive skills can be summed up into either a lack of imagination or the presence of an imagination albeit a lazy one. I would like to think that the members of the youth who claim to detest reading have not experienced that connection yet. They have merely been made to accept reading as one in a series of requirements, tedious as many of the other subjects they detest. They have been unable to separate the idea of reading as an activity from reading as a classroom subject. Hence, when they are presented with opportunities to form a connection, they fail to do so because the concern is rather academic than personal.
Curiously, though I was able to form the connection with Diaz’s novel, as I grew older, I became more conscious that the book was not necessarily written with someone like me in mind. How did Diaz even aim for me? I realized that the miracle of Literature was that I turned out to be a lucky reader, one in a million that picked up the book and found myself forever changed. Nafisi herself points out that this is how literature brings the reader into a “republic of imagination that transcends space and time.” I am a Cebuano-Manileño post-adolescent living between both cities, and the person who best expresses me is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican professor who teaches at MIT. “That gives you a sense of hope, a sense of connection and camaraderie,” Nafisi writes. “It is one of those moments when you’re glad you’re human.”
As I grew older, I also became aware that I was not merely discovering myself in books, but that I was more importantly learning how to discover other people. Just as much as I was noting the similarities, I was noting the differences, the points where Oscar and I would not connect. I drew the line between Oscar and me, and that helped me to know him better as well. I think this is essential for writers. As Nafisi puts it: “It is so boring to constantly talk about yourself! And that is the message of fiction—you can’t talk only about yourself. You to understand and give voice to everyone, even people unlike you, even the villain—because even if you’re fighting the villain you need to understand him first.”
And as I grew older, I felt a similar connection with other books, other authors, other characters, and even other literary genres. To name a few, I felt the connection in Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, Yates’s “When You Are Old”, David Ives’ “Variations on the Death of Trotsky”, and most recently, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. Writing this essay now, I think of all the characters that have sprung from these works and inhabited my mind. They still live there, fondly interacting. Oscar looks up to Dante, and the speaker of Yates’ poem meets up with Leo Gursky and Nao Yasutani regularly for an afternoon walk. These are all fictions, but they all stand for something and they have meant something to me. One day, I hope that they can be important to my kids, or at least, they’ll be the first to open the doors for them, so they can read their own stories and then go tell me about it.