What Reading Means to the Reader, Part 2

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?


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