I was recently watching a movie where, yet again, the dorkiest and most ineffectual character in the story is also the only one seen reading a book. This character is an all-too familiar type. I’m not even going to tell you what movie I’m talking about, because I can think of 20 others to take its place.
He’s the kid with his nose stuck in a book, and he’s usually sporting thick glasses and a red sweater with white sleeves sticking out. Or maybe they’ll just go all the way and give him band-aid glasses and a bowtie. Why hold back? In fact, I’d like it to be known that in my own long life I have never once seen a guy with bandaid glasses and a bowtie walking down the street holding a book. I say this is an annoying and unfair stereotype, and I think it’s time we speak up about it.
We read and write because we like to. That’s all.
It doesn’t mean we’re meek, or goofy, or clueless. We don’t read to escape from reality. Yeah, try to read Joseph Conrad to escape from reality. Good luck with that. We’re trying to get reality. A lifetime will shoot by us in ten seconds if we don’t halt it sometimes, and think, reflect, challenge our ideals, try out alternate angles, learn some things we didn’t know.
Reading is confrontation. At the end of a good book, you may decide to change your life, and a reader or writer is somebody for whom that possibility is always open. This is why a person who discovers a great work of literature (or music, or art, or any other form of creative expression) often appears for the moment like a crazed animal, twitching and mumbling, incomprehensible. Don’t talk to this person — give them time — they are emerging from some cocoon right now, and you are an unwelcome witness. But if you are a reader and a writer (isn’t it really the same thing? or shouldn’t it be?) you know what that thrill of change feels like. You crave it yourself, even though these kinds of changes can have dangerous consequencees, and may alienate everyone you know.
Meek? I don’t think so. In fact the world is filled with meek people, and most of them don’t read. I look around me and I see them everywhere — the henpecked husbands, the forgotten wives, the slavish employees, the frightened bureaucrats. I don’t see any of these people reading “Ulysses”. And if they tried, maybe it would inspire them to break out of their shells a little bit.
Meek? It’s rush hour on the New York City subway, and I can easily spot ten Willy Lomans sitting or standing around me. But if I see one of them pull out a book — some Toni Morrison, some Chuck Pahlaniuk, some Charles Baudelaire, it really doesn’t matter — well, it’s like spotting a living breathing mind among the walking corpses. That one, I think to myself, that one will survive.
Here’s another stereotype — we readers are stuck in the past, lost in nostalgic reveries, like Alonso Quijana with his bookcase and his rusty armor. Well, yeah, we do read the classics, but this is just because that new stuff they’re churning out over at Random House and Doubleday isn’t good enough to satisfy our needs. It doesn’t mean we’re in love with the past; rather, the past imprisons and oppresses us, and we’re trying to understand it so we can break the chains. Which is more than anybody else seems to be trying to do. And these chains need breaking.
Literature is what reminds us to take good care of our souls — that part of ourselves the outside world will not keep safe for us.
I’m proud to be an obsessive reader and writer, and I’m not going to let anyone put me down for it. If you’re an obsessive reader and writer, I hope you will proclaim it proudly too.
(The photo on the top of this page is of a beautiful statue of Eugene O’Neill as a child that can be found at the shore of the Long Island Sound in New London, Connecticut.)