What Reading Means to the Reader

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.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: