Archive for October, 2011

What Reading Means to the Reader, Part 3

October 24, 2011

5. This Reading Bridge

This bridge is not easily constructed; and, as the song says, no one else can do it for you, you’ve got to go there by yourself. To build it, we have to think of where we are now and what we have come to understand in getting here. We have learned to live with the ambiguities of having but also wanting, of loving but also dreaming. We have seen ourselves transformed by age and experience, and we have cleared our desks, sharpened our pencils and observed the guidelines as given by the proctor.

But, speaking for myself, it has become increasingly difficult to tolerate many absolute rules or values. Please, I ask: I am negotiating one life, seeking renewal every day, and improvising constantly. I need fewer constraints and more time for explorations. I am redefining the possibilities still open to me, especially the new ones, so different from the possibilities once open long ago, but so baffling then, and now closed to me forever.

I want to know the alternative stories I might have lived, the lives of others, the horizons of others; their legacies and metaphors. What has happened to the other stories? Who lived them? How did they work out? There are so many stories, we know now, and countless ways to live them through. We never grow up, I say; we grow through.

I have learned that a man needs to disentangle himself from anger and selfishness nearly every day, needs to remember the horizon, and to take a long view of it. I am defined less by what I have done than by what remains unfinished: the explorations of intimacy and caring; the hopes for a legacy of my own; to have taught at least one memorable lesson; to leave a record.

A man living my life or one like it has become aware of the mysteries between people; how we define ourselves separately from each other, dress ourselves to be this person, and not that one. I am aware of integrity and afraid of despair, and I have often lived barely on the edges of both. Increasingly those edges are what I talk about most:

Responding to the needs of others.
Rescuing others from emptiness.
Rescuing myself from emptiness.
Practicing generosity and caring.
Recollecting and interpreting the evidences of one life.
Understanding the story I live.
Living respectfully among others.

I try to live by these ideas: a fair man works to find and understand the commonness and the equality of his own life with the lives of others.  Never underestimate the power of these unfinished issues, because these edges of a life keep it in forward motion.

Until September 11, 2001, these edges for many of us were dulled, I think, by a contemporary ethos of the instant, the competitive, the entertaining, and the successful; these edges, our concerns, our hearts, were at best unexpressed. That day was our day of acutely knowing our edges. After our experiences then, we know that a common life, even our own, can have an infinite touch. And now, when we acknowledge that the world is not the same, it is as much for what we have seen that remains inside ourselves as it is for what we know has been lost.

I think there is not one person who would not have wished some heroism — some chance to rescue another person, if only we were there and able — some moment to act above ourselves and beyond our limits, solely for the life of another person. If and only. Now, these are not idle speculations, as they might once have been; they are promises we make to ourselves about who we must become, not because a disaster might occur, but because it will not occur.  Our heroism must be in our awareness, rediscovered for ourselves and expressed in our behaviors.

This is my lesson about the interior life that requires our dearest attention.  I think there is not one person who cannot feel possible loss, the unimaginable moment, the abyss, the edge of despair, the collapse of structures and certainties within, layer upon layer upon layer.  And so we are always challenged to rebuild those layers of identity, with connection, passion, generosity, and ideas.  If we are in search of compassion and understanding, if we are looking for our hearts, we must move to the edge of our lives and the lives of others as readers, searching the universe for signs of themselves, do.


6. What Reading Means

The readers are everywhere. The readers change form, attuning their reading bodies: leaning forward facedown into it, falling deeply backward into it. The readers are everywhere in silence, though they hear a voice. The readers are everywhere unmoving, though they are in motion. The readers everywhere are private, though they are open, exposed, visible. They are nearby everywhere, though they accept the premises of another world, the written world apart from this one.

The readers are immersed in another logic, different from any of their own, immersed as well in an ethics, a history, a flow of time and mind. Immersed, they are themselves created by this other world, not their own, emerging nurtured into it as though from an egg. They rise, awaken, and look about themselves, and the readers give their own senses to another place; rising, the readers are no longer simply themselves, nor are they alone. They travel among others, with others within, their voices in their ears.

The readers are at risk, everywhere. They read, always at the edge of their own lives, minds like knives, cutting new spaces in an imagined wood. They live in configured worlds, carved of language. They live in other bodies, limbs made of language. In strands of experiences, fabrics woven of language. In boats, afloat on language.

Every time we read it is an opportunity to live up to the possibilities of the open experience, the voyage in the open boat, the journey on the raft, the promise of risking who and what the limits are. Readers read at the edge of discovery, a mirror to the edge of loss. Readers live beyond the constraints of one lifespan, one culture, one gender, one economy, one intellect, one body, one vision, one experience. Readers live in trouble and danger, in love, soft and pliant in the hands of others, distant in the lives and memories of others, until they look up, more safely or less safely returning into their own.

Readers are everywhere. In reading, they enter houses, rooms, beds, bodies of others; assumptions, fears, aspirations; tenements, jungles, seascapes. In reading, they are given to encounter and explore what they have asked to be given: the recovery of some fresh image waiting among the assemble memories of the past.  The oil on the skin, the remembered kiss, the breath of sickness, the inevitable loss.

The readers hold their lives and experiences as templates or screens; and art is played out upon them.  As they read they give and reveal themselves in reciprocity, offering in turn their fears to honor the fears in another person’s story, their passions to honor the other’s passions. Readers fold and unfold themselves into the reading; they are not here but in their ways of reading, folding and unfolding until they move forward into different lives.

These have been my reader’s questions:  Where am I at this moment?  What is leading me on?  What, in this story, is my story?  Why have I been abandoned here?  Whom can I tell about this world?  What can I say?

Reading is a world. Boundless, whole, complex, perceptual, challenging, incomplete, invisible, indistinct.

Reading is also a map of the world. Locations, relationships, entrances, exits, landscapes, highways, ranges, flats, weathers, traces, the forbidden.

Reading is tension. Greed, avarice, antipathy, ethics, generosity, kindness, assistance, revenge, forgiveness, enmity, peace, jealousy, acceptance, fragmentation, integrity, falseness, illness, medicine, authenticity, distances, presence, wounds, scars, conflicts, amity, dishonor, grace.

Reading is identification. Self, other, family, tribe, lover, enemy, artist, failure, doppelganger, mirror, twin, alien, stranger, unknown one, searcher, savior, saint, exile, prodigal, outlaw, violator, transgressor, restorer, clown, martyr, hero, magician.

Reading is a passage. Problem, risk, exploration, reflection, transformation, resolution, evolution, loss, victory, rescue.

I believe that we become who we are meant to be through thinking, reading and writing, speaking with others, and giving our attention to what we believe in. We work in a fluid information environment that surrounds us every day, where our engagements with processes (and not things) are about as certain as we can be.

Neither skillful mastery nor personal identity is ever fixed. It is a fluid and inviting world. This is a good condition of life: in the face of new unknowns every day, we have the opportunity to learn anew who we are and what we are capable of doing. It never ends.

How differently would we have to live without our trust and experience in reading?

We want to move forward to embrace our own lives, but safely and fearlessly; we want to shape our own becoming among people in a place we can trust.

We are given tasks and crises by our lives and our work; we learn to assume responsibility for knowledge, and we create our strength in response.

We build a human world that has never been built before, and never will be finished.

We find that the steady tensions of one life, and each life’s compelling issues, keep us in a state of inquiry and hope, and lead us on.

We believe that the experience of living and discovering knowledge for ourselves permits us to possess something that does not disappear.

We are all held together in a fabric of stories; the possibilities of interpretation enrich us; helping each other to listen strengthens our union.

We want a life that has the qualities of wholeness and integrity; and at its center, we want there to be a fire.

We find in reading that the fire must be inside ourselves.
And so, what happens when we read? Perhaps we become almost entirely made of mind, and completely unphysical. If this is so then we are somewhat apart from our bodies when we read. Except that we are not: we are even more deeply within our bodies, less aware of others, less distracted by an outer world.

Often, when we do this, an important thing happens: a reading community takes form. Reading and talking about reading confers on our engaged participants the capacity to imagine the possible in a democratic society. Once we have introduced ideas and processes to talk about them to ourselves, we find that we can never be the same. In my experience, this is how progressive discourse and expression can enter the community mind.  When we do this we learn that readers read not to escape their experiences and their lives, but to discover themselves, where they are.

Reading is something that only our own minds can do: it is always a first-person experience. No one else can do it for us, because there are parts of us, deep inside, that only books, narratives, stories and myths will stir. We need this because we are all unfinished, all of us are works in progress, never more so than when we read and speak together.

In my experience of such groups, we find that our conversations are not only about books, but also about our communities and experiences, and about our aspirations. When we talk together, we present ourselves to each other and become known to each other, not strangers. Everyone reads the same book, but we find that we have read it differently from each other. We come to understand our shared world through the eyes of others.

Books of the kind we have chosen are often the clearest places to see courage and human possibility, values to emulate in a world where models are rare. And when we talk, we complete the life of the book, what Toni Morrison calls its “talking life,” because it is talk that permits us to grasp the imagination of possibility.

What does a reading culture understand? There are other points of view than our own. We are all similar, and we are all different. We are capable of differing from others, and yet we can listen to them as well. We need to make up our own minds individually. We live through complexity; we become stronger through difficulty.

Perhaps reading is a space we enter, a place different from where we are and we become lost in it. Except we can often remember exactly where we are at times we have read something powerful and magnificent.

Perhaps reading is a premise we assume, or evidence of another person that we accept within ourselves. Perhaps it is a gift we accept.

Perhaps it is an act of travel, a going-there. A going-between the present and the not-present, between the fictions we read and the fictions we live. From the now to what Maxine Greene calls the “not-yet.” To read well is to look into an exquisite but promising or perhaps foreboding diary that we did not write, knowing it will change our lives to open it, but yet we cannot resist. We want that privacy to be open to us, those secrets to be revealed to us, we want to be present for those undressings.

Who are we when we read? Is there some wild part of us capable of being other than ourselves? Of course there is. That person is the person we look for, with hope and expectation, when we read.  What do you want?  What is the bridge?

What Reading Means to the Reader, Part 2

October 22, 2011

3. Every Reader Brings a Need

As I say, I think that every reader brings a need, and it’s useful for us to think of that need as an edge. I contend that it is our need to live on an edge that compels us to read. (I think of the late John W. Gardner, who wrote that we are problem-seekers, problem-requirers, by nature.) We cannot help but want to work on something. Many problems, many needs, many edges, many reads.

It is part of an American promise, I think, to become something together, for each other. This is democracy to me.

To read on the edge may be to experience the edge of a blade; our reading opens us like an orange, and pares off the thick skin of routine, dysfunction and heartlessness.

The edge can imply a horizon in each of us; our reading always moves us forward, toward it.
Or the edge can be like a hunger or a thirst, or an appetite for experience; the reader wants some cognitive nourishment, a sharp, vivid, reflective engagement in a new, unfolding world.
Libraries and librarians address the edge in every reader — the more edges, the more possibilities, but also, as things get edgy, the greater the reader’s need for trust and safety. Like all help given in libraries, reading advice has an intimate purpose, because it involves hopes and possibilities. Every reading experience can change a life, and become a watershed for the reader.

Or we might use Kafka’s words, where the edge is an axe:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us … We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

When a librarian recommends a book, what does it mean? It means we have made assumptions about the edge of another’s need, that frozen sea. The success of the relationship — its foundation for trust, satisfaction, and change in the reader — is an indication of having matched the reader’s need or the reader’s edge in such a way as to hone it, extend it, and confirm its value.

Librarians always work at the edge of a user’s need, and — like all work near an edge — transactions about reading are always fraught with risk. They imply intimacy and our advice has a very intimate purpose. We want to know where the reader’s mind has been or will be. We want to know what will unfold for the reader, but we also know there are no certainties in an unfolding world.

What we know to be certain in our own unfolding world is the presence of stories, the place of stories, the forms of stories in memory, and the ways that stories make us inextricable parts of each other.
Stores are histories. Stories are news. Stories are points of view. Stories are elections, defeats, and victories. Stories are lives, migrations, open fields, and forgotten gardens. Stories are jokes. Stories are grudges. Stories are parties. Stories are marriages and divorces, births and passings. Stories are wars, politics, and stories are what Dr. King meant when he said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. That is a story.

There is that arc in every life, and it is a story about us.

Only when we can understand the story, I contend, can we begin to know what our lives mean. It is a great tragedy when a life ends without its story being known by the person who lived it.


4. Important Cognitive Work

We read to know our lives. We read to think. We read to know our own story. Reading is important cognitive work. Reading affirms life, creates mind, adds dimensions to experience, counters entropy (the undertow of the everyday), and it wards off despair.

What readers need is help, courage, permission to take the risk of reading, if, like my father Cliff Carr, they are ever to encounter themselves face to face as they read.

This is why we have libraries.

What libraries mean to our democracy and to our lives is very clear and easy to say:

Libraries in America are cornerstones of the communities they serve. Free access to the books, ideas, resources, and information in America’s libraries is imperative for education, employment, enjoyment, and self-government. Libraries are a legacy to each generation, offering the heritage of the past and the promise of the future.  [This is from “Libraries: An American Value,” ALA]

Libraries remind us that we are all uncertain parts of the drama we live as a culture, and that we are all responsible participants in our society. Libraries remind us that the world is fluid and ambiguous, but it is less so when we read; and that, however briefly, we must think about reading, and feeling, together. And of course libraries exist to ask, Now, what do you want to have happen? What is the bridge you need to build?


What Reading Means to the Reader

October 20, 2011

Last night, October 19, 2011, I delivered this talk for the final time at a library. In this case, it was the Iredell County Library, in Statesville, NC. I will publish it here on the blog in three sections, of which this is the first.

What Reading Means to the Reader
by David Carr

What do you want to have happen?

What do you want to have happen in your lives, in your communities, in your minds and imaginations, in your families, in your children, in your conversations with others?

When we think as clearly as we can about the consequences and hopes we have for a life, we are thinking about the most interesting problem we can understand. How are we instrumental in shaping our own lives? How do we contribute trust, strength, and courage to the lives that matter most to us?

Another way of asking this question is, maybe, How do we live the best possible life, even a life against the odds, the one we come to feel we were meant to lead? And, perhaps, how do we help others lead their strongest lives, like our children and our companions in our places.
When we ask this we have to figure out what we mean by strongest life. It will not be easy, and it should not be easy. We want something challenging and a little difficult to see. We want a life that is not an accident, and that has a core of values and ethics at its center. But we also want something that surprises us in stimulating ways.

And we want to be human human beings, feeling all of the feelings that we have the capacity to feel.
You are readers, and here you are in the library. Perhaps you already know about humanity residing here, and feelings, and your life to be discovered here, and perhaps this is why you read, to find out what you want to have happen in your life.

I ask my second question as the one we need to ask right after that first question. If we can say what we want to have happen, then

What is the bridge you need to build now?

That second question, unlike the first question, is a metaphor intended to cause people to envision the change they need, and to see the process of building toward that change as a collaborative relationship. When we are in libraries, among librarians, we build bridges, and most often they are best built together. When we read together, I believe that we become something together.

1. We Read Because We Need Edges

In order to live forward, human beings need edges, and useful reading, no matter what it is – fiction, nonfiction, even a great cookbook or dictionary or atlas — is an experience of an edge. Useful reading completes an inchoate, unclear part inside ourselves by taking us somewhere edgy, scary, or risky, where our strengths and hearts are challenged. Edges make reading irresistible, because we require sharp edges in our lives, and cannot live very well without them. But our experiences in the 21st century have fewer intellectual adventures, fewer moments when we are asked to be certain of what we think and feel.

An edge could mean making a choice between someone and someone else, to stay or not to stay, to love or not to love, to believe or to doubt, or a choice among possibilities, where each option might mean a compromise, or a choice of opposites inside one’s own life, or a choice to live with integrity in a particular way. Each choice means we approach an edge; once we are on the other side of the choice we have crossed a divide and we cannot go back, because life means forward motion, always becoming, always crossing edges. No one ever moves forward in life without first wanting or needing to cross an edge of knowledge or experience, and then crossing it.

An edge could mean an extraordinary sensation or feeling, usually either sensual and sexual or tense and combative. This is an edge because it has a physical tension surrounding it, a surging excess of feelings or fears and hopes — and we can anticipate the satisfaction we want to have as we resolve them. Sensuality and fighting (or think of wrestling with another person, out of passion or enmity) bring our feelings and our energies intensely to the edge of what’s possible. In this way, touching the possible inside ourselves, we are tested by those two great themes: sex and violence.

As a reader you might experience an edge reading a thriller, when Travis McGee or Jack Reacher makes a conscious choice to seek justice through vengeance, or when someone takes up a cause against the odds, or pursues some unfinished issue out of the past, in order to complete the undone feelings of an unjust event. We readers are there at the edge. Or when you read Diana Gabaldon’s Scottish series of time travel and inter-century relationships, guaranteed to raise a kilt. We readers are there at the edge of that kilt.

Similarly, an edge could mean a mission where there is a rescue, a recovery, or a reconciliation, something that fate requires must be brought about. The chosen rescuer — and the reader — wants something to happen, an encounter with something unknown and potentially unlimited. Sometimes the hero needs to build a bridge between things, or between people, or toward the past, or simply to get home. Think of Odysseus.

Experiencing edges in great reading experiences stimulates those parts of ourselves that we wish to complete, or bring into consciousness, and gives us the sense of virtual or ideal wholeness that we usually cannot have because we lead real lives, authentic lives, but lives that are often by definition fragmented and unfinished. The edges we dream of experiencing are possible only for fictional heroes to approach and to cross. But they help us to find our own kinds of heroism, building and crossing our own bridges. To discover those places of crossing and to build our bridges to ford them, we read.

2. My Father, Reading

My father was named Cliff Carr. He was born 115 years ago today, during the late Victorian Era, now two centuries past.  It was the second Grover Cleveland administration, just before the election of William McKinley; and now my father has been dead for nearly fifty years, but I still remember him most vividly as a reader. He never bought a book as I do almost daily. But he read three newspapers each day, and did their crosswords. Every book Readers Digest condensed from the fifties through 1964. The books I brought home from school and the library. Any book just lying around. Every word, every week, in The Saturday Evening Post. And every Sunday, in the Newark Sunday News, he would read a novel published in tabloid form, usually some kind of adventure yarn.

Because he died before I was smart enough to ask the right questions he left me with a lot to wonder about. For example: Why he left his parents in England in 1910 or 1912 to move to the prairies of Canada alone as a teenager; and what he found there, on a farm in Medicine Hat (as I reconstruct it) until 1917, when for some reason I also don’t know, he and his mates enlisted in the Canadian Army to serve in the Great War, an experience that marked him so, he never talked about it very much.

(I have seen his 94-year-old signature on his enlistment papers, thanks to the Internet. And his experiences as a rear gunner have been refreshed for me by reading Sebastian Faulks’ wonderful novel, Birdsong, which repeats nearly word for word some of the few memories — of being gassed, and living with lice — my father spoke aloud, and I have come to imagine through my reading many things he must have seen and never said. But I will return to Cliff Carr as a reader.)

And so it was a particularly interesting Sunday when my father opened the Newark Sunday News to read his weekly potboiler, to find that its story happened to be set in that same part of raw and rural Canada where my father farmed on horseback before the twenties roared. Very interesting, he noted. I know from his brief revelations over time that he experienced a Canadian life so brutal and isolated that he could not bear it after the war to end all wars, and returned to the United States to be repatriated.

And so, now very interested, my father read on. Yes, the story was set in the same province, in the same region, in the same time, in fact, when he, Cliff Carr, as a young man, was there. And, in the same town. His interest was really piqued, however, when a fictional character with my father’s own name entered the story … and Cliff Carr in 1950s New Jersey read about a younger Cliff Carr in Canada half a century before.

This is another reason to read: we will always encounter ourselves in our books.