Saturday, January 05, 2008

Someone Who Gets It

An excerpt from "A New Resolution" by Elizabeth Berg from today's Chicago Tribune:

It may be true that music hath charms to soothe the savage soul -- I think it is true, actually. But books soothe our souls too. They're like comfort food without the calories or the dishes to clean up afterward. Books inspire us, because they suggest things we might never have thought about before, and they give us ideas for things we might never have conceived of otherwise, and they make us want to try things, or be things, or make things, from creme brulee to sensible foreign policy. Books educate us about art and politics and people and ideas. This happens in non-fiction and fiction. And in poetry, of course. So many of us have been moved to a deeper understanding of things -- or many things -- by taking in a few dark lines on a cream-colored page. Books exercise our creativity, because they are a uniquely interactive art form. The author may write, "She was a freckle-faced redhead," but it's the reader who sees those freckles forming a tiny constellation at the angle of the jaw. It's the reader whose imagination provides extra details for a kiss, a punch, a description of open land, or a dimly lit bedroom where a character kneels to pray.

What about the tactile joys of reading? What about the pleasure of looking at the jacket art, not only when you're considering buying a book, but as you read it -- even as many of us look numerous times at author photos as we read, probably trying to determine if the author is in fact talking about her- or himself, or if this is really fiction; or wondering who this person is who has the nerve to say this, or the poetic ability, or the insight, or the intelligence, or the creativity. Book pages feel good beneath the fingers, and you can at any moment take a deep and satisfying whiff of a book. Try that with a museum painting, or a ballet, or an opera, or, God forbid, a hockey game. Plus a book is cheaper than all those things, and it can be passed around to others to enjoy as fully as you did. (Of course it is always a nice gesture to buy a friend his or her own copy of a book you enjoyed. Come on, a paperback isn't much more than a grande latte frappa crappa mocha-hantas.) A lot of people say they don't have time to read, not even an hour a day. Whenever I hear that, I always think of my partner, Bill, who says, "Give up 'Wheel of Fortune' in favor of reading, and you can go through 25 books a year -- and that's with taking the weekends off!" And here's something else: Books don't so much take time as give it to us, because they reacquaint us with the notion of real time. One-blue-mountain, one second. One-blue-mountain, two-blue-mountain, two seconds. Remember? In this age of multitasking, of speed for speed's sake, of pop-ups and links exhorting us to go somewhere else when we're not even done with where we are, it is a relief, if not salvation, for us to focus on one dang thing at a time. Instead of being lost for hours in the time-sucking quicksand of the Internet, one sits in dignified, tick-tock, one-blue-mountain silence and reads a page ... turns it ... reads the next page, and so on. Such an elegant act, reading, isn't it? And such an elegant image, a person sitting in a chair, a book resting on a lap, lamplight spilling onto the page. Can't you just feel your blood pressure lowering, contemplating such a thing? Really, a picture of a person reading should hang in every doctor's office, especially those colonoscopy guys. I honestly believe that our sense of urgency, our belief that we must become one with our Blackberrys, our need for moving ever faster in the workplace and on the highway and in line at the grocery store, even in conversation with one another, is causing an erosion of the most basic form of civility. Are we really all that busy, or do we just make ourselves so because it has become the new norm? Sometimes I wish someone had talked to the inventor of Fed Ex and said, "Hold on, Bob; you might be starting a dangerous trend, here." For this is what we have wrought: Many of us have no idea how to keep still. We have forgotten that in stillness is a great richness, as well as opportunity for reflection and repair. Stillness offers a way to learn perspective and therefore kindness, for in such purposeful quiet we are often reminded of our connection with others, and of the need for that connection. We need to relearn the art of conversation, we need to take a moment to really look into each others' eyes when we shake hands, we need to see and appreciate and be empathic with each other. All of this takes time that we cannot afford not to have. So what's the link here, you might be thinking? I think there is a link. Because I believe that no matter what the genre, books help move us in the direction we need to go, because they require a kind of contemplation. And contemplation will suggest that we need to save ourselves from drowning in a sea of dullness, of virtual rather than actual reality, of communication that fails to really communicate, all of which leads to a deadness of spirit, which leads to a lack of respect for life, which leads to violence and destruction. In many wonderful ways, books make the dominoes fall the other way. I believe, too, that each of us, no matter how gregarious, or open-hearted, or secure we might be nonetheless holds deep inside ourselves a private place, a personal sacristy, where almost nothing is allowed to enter. But I think certain books we come across in our lifetimes do enter there. They enter and they pull up a chair and slip off their shoes and say, "I'm right here if you need me." In this way, they offer respite from a kind of existential loneliness all of us humans seem burdened by. I think that's why so many people say with such utter sincerity that some books are their best friends, friends who live on special bookshelves and are never thrown out or even lent out, lest they be needed immediately. I don't know, call me crazy, but it seems to me that Perez Hilton's online celebrity site just can't compare. Really, nothing can.

No comments: