There is no frigate like a book.
Children's books are now edible. This is a fairly recent development, and a very sensible one. With cardboard pages and rounded edges, these board books (or "chunky" books, as they're called), can be gnawed on and slobbered over in lieu of being actually read. It occurs to me that this is not only a good idea for babies, but the perfect analogy for the importance of reading in life--long after the impulse to cut teeth has faded. Because no matter what our age, we ought never to stop eating books, for books are the feast of the imagination.
At the top of the list of things to be alarmed about these days is this: too many people have stopped reading. In small towns where libraries have closed for lack of funds and patrons, the omnipresent video store stays lit well into the night. People line up with their membership cards to purchase a largely passive form of entertainment, a spectacle, the latest montage of images cut and pasted into seamless illusions requiring little more from us than occasional groping in the popcorn bowl. As for that icon of civilization, the Reading Room, where a sophisticated silence ruled (shhh!), it has become a relic of the aging library--preserved more by Christian Scientists than by culture.
Children who used to curl up with a good book to fight boredom now run electronic mazes and slay electronic dragons. Despite the assurances of former presidents that we would inherit a whole generation with excellent eye-hand coordination who would make excellent pilots, the sight of a child playing Nintendo does not compare to the sight of a child bent over a good book, traveling at warp speed through cerebral time and intellectual space.
I turn my head just now to see my sixteen-year-old son, Blue, sitting by the fireplace in the cabin reading a Star Trek book. It is a beautiful sight, his nearly shaved head and gold earring bent over the words on a page as he explores space, the "final frontier." Is he "beaming up" just now, or battling Klingons? Who knows? But he's reading. So is his sister, Chelsea, also lost in the creases of a book. There's no television set at the cabin, and they have forgotten that they miss it.
My wife, Shawn, the artist, sits in the rocker nearby, also reading. Her book is about parenting, a refresher course for this third-time mother. There sit the three of them, reading as I write about the importance of it. An early afternoon thunderstorm, like clockwork in the mountains, is folding down around us, and in my stupor I imagine a kind of energy humming over their heads, like the whine of high-voltage wires.
We have made our annual trek to the Chinook Book Shop in Colorado Springs, and we all have prizes in hand, each with a complimentary bookmark. Chunks of somebody else's brain, tales of somebody else's journey, portable wisdom, intimate conversations to overhear, the fossilized etchings of passion. Books with slick, beautiful covers endorsed by lots of smart people who got there before we did and are promising that we won't be disappointed. Books--they come home hot in your hands, and then by increments they warm your life, like heated bricks in a New England bed.
Let's consider just a few of the reasons why the simple and sacramental life requires books in the house. To begin with, these are physical
artifacts; whether old or new they take up space in the house. Unlike so much in our world that is transient and brought to us on somebody else's schedule, books wait patiently to be taken up when the time is right. They gather dust and turn yellow, to be sure, but they do not disappear. They are a kind of kinetic energy under cover, promises on the spine, blood turned into ink which, when read, turns back into blood.
Books can also bring the dead back to life, and thereby make thoughts immortal. By outliving their authors, books guarantee that truth doesn't have to be reinvented by each generation. Sadly, those who never read are crippled by the deadly fiction that nothing of much importance occurred before their lifetime. Such people are "intellectual orphans," and their numbers are growing.
What's more, books create a kind of unspoken communion, safely bringing strangers into the house without having to worry about where they will sleep. They preserve order and teach anticipation, beginning with the introduction and holding us fast until the final period. All this is to say that one can have a relationship
with books, a relationship that the reader can shape and control.
Unlike so many of the experiences that modern life delivers full-born (instant, just add water), books represent the life of thought, feeling, and experience as a process. Reading is a journey. In the preface, the author introduces herself, as if some civility is in order, and then issues the standard disclaimer for the tenuous covenant that is writing and reading: for the failure of words to do their work perfectly and for the failure of the reader to understand perfectly. All the same, it is better to have journeyed and misunderstood than to have stayed home.
The first few paragraphs of any good book feel like an undertow, but not the kind you swim against. Permission to enter another world is granted, and soon it is difficult to know who is reading and who is being read. When Shawn and I read together, we never hesitate to blurt out some sentence that we find meaningful, and then, with or without acknowledgment, we slide back into the silent journey. Back and forth it goes, these reports from places far away or very near at hand. Often, we read aloud a passage whose prose we envy--something that we know is true but has not been said this well before: "Listen to this!"
But by far the most important thing that books provide us is the best means for developing the most vital human faculty: the imagination.
Words can describe, but it takes a reader to conjure up images, to shape them, and, if necessary, to censor them. Our children are committing too many physical crimes these days because too many visual
crimes have been committed against them. Graphic images of violence are being hung in the gallery of their minds without first being checked at the door. The people who bring us "special effects" have a moral responsibility not to "burn" such things into psychic places that were meant to stay green.
Unlike the visual arts, books leave us humanely in charge of that process by which images move from type to flesh. Sadly, our society mocks this process with the pejorative phrase "It's only your imagination." But what else can save us, if not this silent, essential transportation of the soul? Most human cruelty would be eliminated if people had the capacity to imagine. As a prerequisite to empathy, imagination makes kindness possible by allowing us to inhabit the skins we weren't born in. Lack of imagination, on the other hand, makes the inflicting of pain, in all its forms, possible. Never are we more honest about cruelty, prejudice, or abuse than when we begin, "You can not imagine
how it feels...."
Finally, the reading of books is not just a simple, disease-free kind of fantasy. It's an unending means of self-discovery, a means by which the very character of the reader is tutored. In a world where people feel queasy discussing anything more important than the weather, books lure even the most reluctant of us into deep water, into lucid and poetic conversation about things that really
matter. When gifted writers express what we already know to be true, we recognize our own thoughts and take them more seriously. Raised to their level of conversation, our own discourse becomes more lucid. In short, writers raise the stakes of the game and dare us to contemplate the world as keenly as they do.
Here then is the third
prescription for the recovery of simple pleasures and the sacramental life: buy, borrow, or check out lots of books, and consider them friends. Some day, when reading to children is as natural as nursing, adults will never be weaned from the page. To be read to before bedtime should be a birthright, so that when we grow up, the itty-bitty-book-light will run down its batteries before the remote control. Parents will take their kids to the library more often than to day care, and teachers will read to students for a sacred hour every day.
People will censor books "aesthetically"--by not buying them--and kids will be given a book allowance in addition to their regular allowance, so long as they come home with the goods. Books will be bound instead of banned, given as gifts, discussed more often than sports, and elevated by three simple words to the level of a kinder and gentler form of competition: "Have you read . . . ?" Count calories if you like, but go ahead and gorge yourself on books. What have you got to lose but a small mind?
Excerpted from Morning Sun on a White Piano by Robin Meyers. Copyright © 1999 by Robin Meyers. Excerpted by permission of Galilee Trade, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.