|Abbe passing judgment on Jamaica Kincaid|
No, my dog Abbe--talented as she is--does not know how to read. But she does like to sleep on books, which I'm afraid is a habit she's picked up from her mother.
Here's my confession: though I'm an English professor, a writer, and someone who has built a life with words, I feel as though something has short-circuited in my brain and I no longer know how to read. I'll still hold a book in my hands in bed, but only as a prop; I know it's time to turn off the light when it thumps on my chest.
Oh sure, I can decipher the words on labels and instructions readily enough, and I can read magazines like nobody's business; current and past issues of Bon Appetit, New Yorker, More, The Bark, and People (yes, People, people! You're my friends, I can trust you right?) lie stacked about the house, on every surface, all in various states of being consumed. And yes, I can still read my students' work with great interest, and I'll read blogs late into the night, in the way that blogs are read, skipping here and there, following the path on which they lead me.
|My beloved, decrepit Elwyn....|
I'm recalling my younger self because I've been re-reading E.B. White with my students (yes, dear reader, how lucky am I to have a job like this?). Elwyn has always accompanied my inner self—my favorite book as a child was Charlotte’s Web; I must have read it at least a dozen times. Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that E.B. White, as an essayist, would also be one of my favorite writers in later years, that I would read his essays over and over, trying to learn how to be both so vulnerable and so strong on the page.
Recently I went back to read Charlotte’s Web again—my same battered copy that has somehow stayed with me all these years, with its soft corners, its torn cover—and I saw that this story is really a Buddhist tale, a lesson in mindfulness. It’s about being truly content with whatever and wherever you are. It’s a narrative of kindness and compassion. Consider this passage that comes at the very end, after Charlotte has died (yes, I cried again!):
"Life in the barn was very good—night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything."
The true moral, for me, emerges in the last lines of the book: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” I'd like to believe this is true: that friendship and writing go hand-in-hand, that the writers we love best befriend us with their words.
And perhaps that's why I'm mourning the loss (perhaps temporary?) of my former reading self. My students tell me not to worry; that I'm just learning to read differently, that there is no good or bad involved here. Our reading brains evolve with what we're reading. And I love the blogs I'm following (in fact this post is inspired by my former student Brandi and her post about the artifact of the book, as well as blog conversations with current students); these online authors feel like a whole, chatty community of new friends, always willing to talk.
Still, I'd like to remember to practice the yoga of reading: to stretch my reading mind every day, with words that speak to me alone. An intimate conversation, punctuated by meaningful silences. Even if it's just a poem whispering in my ear. Even if it's an old, familiar friend calling me over for a long-overdue chat.