At a recent conference, we were sitting around on Sunday morning in the afterglow of the great weekend. Someone asked what we might do to attract more university students and young scholars to the next conference–not because we were lacking in twenty-somethings, but because they did so well at the conference.
I smiled to myself and bit my tongue. This is the moment in these sorts of events where the pandering comes in, the new adult versions of the bouncy castle and free puppies. Fortunately, there wasn’t really anything ridiculous offered up to lure younger scholars in. After a bit of discussion that I thought might start to lead to parallel sessions targeted at youth, I spoke up.
“I agree that our communication should be strong,” I said. “And I’m glad that we have a student price for the conference. But I think we should make it harder for students to participate, not easier. The students who are here are eager to participate at an academic level. They want to dig in hard to great literature. They are part of an invisible fellowship of young readers that resists culture’s attempt to make things easier. If we make it a great literary event, they will come.”
Imay or may not be right about how to run a conference–it was others that ran the awesome conference, not me– but I think I am right about this secret fellowship of readers. All over the world, I believe, there are young readers who come home from school or soccer practice, hang up their bags, and collapse into a chair with a book. At any one moment there are millions of pairs of feet dangling off the edge of beds as pages are being turned on the bedspread. There are many for whom the only part of high school they connect with is the part where they get to read something good. And they wish they could read more.
How many kids pull the covers up over their heads and read long into the night by the glow of the flashlight? How many science and business students are sneaking off to literature and humanities classes, filling every elective they can with great books? How many teenager have their phone flipped open, their eyes fixed on their Kindle app? How many college dorm makeshift bookshelves of lumber and cinder blocks are tumbling over with yard-sale classics or their favourites from childhood?
If we look carefully enough, avoiding the glare of screens vying for our attention and the pundits that would press down a generation of seekers, you will find there is a secret club of readers, and invisible fellowship of the incurably curious. One of my hopes for this blog is that it will serve as a place for those fellows to meet one another, to trade book ideas, and to know that they are not alone.
Of course, a reader is never really alone, are they? There are the books–the words, the stories, the characters, and the authors.
One of the great resources for bibliophiles is Annie Dillard. Dillard is a precise and elegant prose writer. Her works include poetry, novels, and her transformative essays, including the Pulitzer Prize winner, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and her inspirational, A Writing Life. Thoughtful readers would do well to find their way to Annie Dillard.
I have just finished her An American Childhood. I had to stop highlighting it because I was filling up every page. In this memoir, Pittsburgh becomes a character, a member of Dillard’s family. I know almost nothing about Pittsburgh, but I feel like I know Dillard’s childhood streets. More than just a memoir of Dillard’s early years, it is a memoir of America coming of age in the years after the war into the early years in the 1960s, when no one knew what would come next, but it felt like everything was shifting.
An American Childhood is also a biography of reading. Dillard’s life disintegrates as she comes into teen life in early 60s. She was restless, filled with anxious energy and desperate rebellion. At times she was even rebelling against her self, her own body, her own point of view, and her own critical intelligence. The reader feels the desperation, like we are watching a prairie fire racing toward’s the upcoming winter’s wheat, and we have no way of stopping it.
I wanted to include here just a little bit of writing that captures the intensity of her feeling. I think you need to read the book yourself as it builds toward that threat of personal disintigration. But I really want to highlight the bit about reading, what I call the invisible fellowship of readers. As Dillard points out, it really is a revolutionary exercise, a quiet literary act of rebellion.
Parents have no idea what the children are up to in their bedrooms: They are reading the same paragraphs over and over in a stupor of violent bloodshed. Their legs are limp with horror. They are reading the same paragraphs over and over, dizzy with gratification as the young lovers find each other in the French fort, as the boy avenges his father, as the sound of muskets in the woods signals the end of the siege. They could not move if the house caught fire. They hate the actual world. The actual world is a kind of tedious plane where dwells, and goes to school, the body, the boring body which houses the eyes to read the books and houses the heart the books enflame. The very boring body seems to require an inordinately big, very boring world to keep it up, a world where you have to spend far too much time, have to do time like a prisoner, always looking for a chance to slip away, to escape back home to books, or escape back home to any concentration—fanciful, mental, or physical—where you can lose your self at last. Although I was hungry all the time, I could not bear to hold still and eat; it was too dull a thing to do, and had no appeal either to courage or to imagination. The blinding sway of their inner lives makes children immoral. They find things good insofar as they are thrilling, insofar as they render them ever more feverish and breathless, ever more limp and senseless on the bed.
It was clear that adults, including our parents, approved of children who read books, but it was not at all clear why this was so. Our reading was subversive, and we knew it. Did they think we read to improve our vocabularies? Did they want us to read and not pay the least bit of heed to what we read, as they wanted us to go to Sunday school and ignore what we heard? I was now believing books more than I believed what I saw and heard. I was reading books about the actual, historical, moral world—in which somehow I felt I was not living.
What I sought in books was imagination. It was depth, depth of thought and feeling; some sort of extreme of subject matter; some nearness to death; some call to courage. I myself was getting wild; I wanted wildness, originality, genius, rapture, hope. I wanted strength, not tea parties. What I sought in books was a world whose surfaces, whose people and events and days lived, actually matched the exaltation of the interior life. There you could live. Those of us who read carried around with us like martyrs a secret knowledge, a secret joy, and a secret hope: There is a life worth living where history is still taking place; there are ideas worth dying for, and circumstances where courage is still prized. This life could be found and joined, like the Resistance. I kept this exhilarating faith alive in myself, concealed under my uniform shirt like an oblate’s ribbon; I would not be parted from it.
We who had grown up in the Warsaw ghetto, who had seen all our families gassed in the death chambers, who had shipped before the mast, and hunted sperm whale in Antarctic seas; we who had marched from Moscow to Poland and lost our legs to the cold; we who knew by heart every snag and sandbar on the Mississippi River south of Cairo, and knew by heart Morse code, forty parables and psalms, and lots of Shakespeare; we who had battled Hitler and Hirohito in the North Atlantic, in North Africa, in New Guinea and Burma and Guam, in the air over London, in the Greek and Italian hills; we who had learned to man minesweepers before we learned to walk in high heels—were we going to marry Holden Caulfield’s roommate, and buy a house in Point Breeze, and send our children to dancing school?