“[Literary works] do not endure as objects but as presences. When you read anything worth remembering, you liberate a human voice. You release into the world again a companion spirit.” ”“Louise Gluck, Poet
Plaid skirts, fresh backpacks, and blank notebooks. August belly-flops into a pool of early September mornings. It’s not always a graceful performance.
Only in education is fall a birth. Harvest comes later; teachers plant as the frost sets in. I spent yesterday preparing my room. The 3rd floor is empty ”“ teachers report next week. I put the desks in a perfect circle though I know the carpet cleaners will jumble them up again. I sit on the floor writing out poems with a fat marker. The cream walls begin to blush with color. It’s a room waiting to be consecrated by a mad rush of high school girls, intercom bells, and papers littering my desk. I’m the new teacher who has traded a carefully built reputation at one school for a saner commute to another. It’s scary-wonderful to start again, to see if I can find some magic in these new walls.
Literature is the only cause for which I am a natural missionary. If I were stripped of the voices and characters I’ve let in through the years, I’d be desperately lonely. In Shadowlands, the C.S. Lewis character says: “We read to know we are not alone.”
Lonely? Is that too strong a word? After all, can fiction begin to approximate flesh and blood experiences? Here’s the plain truth: On my own, I’m too obtuse and self-centered to love my neighbors as myself ”“ or even themselves. No telepathy gene here. God bless those omniscient and first-person narrators. They let me peek into another’s mind; his choices, her fears, their embarrassing missteps and secret shames. And once I know a character, it’s easy to find her counterpart watering her plants, sitting on a street corner, or rushing in late to sacrament meeting.
It’s not enough to say “reading is important” or “I love to read.” Reading has shaped my character. Here’s my proof, in terms of twenty-five brief memories.
1. Reading aloud the last chapter in Of Mice and Men to a group of seventh graders, crying through the last three pages, and hearing the boys ask each other in the locker room, “Did you cry? My eyes got watery but I didn’t cry.”
2. Senior year in high school. Staying up late helping my mom explicate Robert Frost’s “Design” as she planned for her BYU freshman English class. Feeling a closeness that was too often missing during those teenage years.
3. Buying a Dover copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems as an 8th grader. Reading it in the birch tree ”“ shouting a poem into the wind.
4. Readathons. My fourth grade teacher let us turn the classroom to forts and we read all. day. long.
5. Readathons. I let my fourth grade students turn the classroom to forts and we read all. day. long.
6. Junior in college. I planned to read one chapter of Walk Two Moons before bed. At two a.m. I slipped the tear-stained novel under my roommate’s door. She returned it, battered, the following evening.
7. Reading Skinnybones aloud to nine-year-olds and laughing so hard I had to step into the hallway to compose myself.
8. Reading Taming of the Shrew with my mother one middle school summer ”“ every evening on the porch until the sunset. We played all the parts.
9. Ordering two copies of Harry Potter book seven and a mess of Chinese food for an all-day readathon with my husband.
10. Night. An 8th grade girl finally talked to her grandfather about his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi Germany.
11. Night. “The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference,” said Weisel. Thirty-two 8th graders start an unplanned independent project to Save Darfur, publishing articles, gathering 1500 postcards, putting on an assembly, and meeting with their senator.
12. To Kill A Mockingbird. Period.
13. Emily of New Moon. Lucy Maud liked her best. I do, too. I reread the entire trilogy this weekend and realized how much this girl shaped my thinking. She is as real as my middle school classmates ”“ except I’m no longer in touch with most of them.
14. Interviewing my mom about Death of a Salesman for a college paper. Hearing how, over 20 years and a dozen readings, she moved from judgment to pity to empathy for Willy Loman.
15. Discovering George Herbert as a college sophomore”“ amazed that a 16th century devotional poet could make feel so deeply. I begin to look at the scriptures as poetry.
16. Reading Goodnight Moon so many times during my babysitting years that I can still recite it in dulcet tones when I struggle to fall asleep.
17. Dressing up as Harry from The Blue Sword for 6th grade Halloween. Forget Virginia Woolf. My feminism began with redheads bearing messages through the flames.
18. Hearing my 11th grade English teacher talk about “ah-ha” moments. I still search for them every time I pick up a book. I still search for them in my muddled life.
19. Finding myself in Alexandra (O Pioneers). Being thankful that she was the object of my husband’s first literary crush.
20. Thinking I loved Pride and Prejudice ”“ and then discovering Persuasion.
21. The Power Of Myth. Joseph Campbell put it all together for me ”“ why some stories felt both so new and so familiar.
23. Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust. Reading these prose poems pushed me to write poetry after a two-year drought.
24. A poetry writing class that traveled together to readings ”“ including Pinsky’s reading his translation of Dante’s Inferno. Because of this class, I never teach a poem without first reading it aloud to my students.
25. Sitting in front of my bookshelf when I’m feeling lonely. Finding “again a companion spirit.”
There, I’ll stop at twenty-five. Care to share a few of your own?