Without a novel to enter before the day is done, my life
feels just a little bit emptier. I suppose I’ve been reading novels just about
my whole life, from Dick and Jane to Dickens and the search for the next story
is constant. Luckily, authors keep writing, publishers keep publishing and
there’s no dearth of stories to be told.
What do I look for in a novel? Plot, for one. Many a fine
author has me wandering around pleasant scenes where nothing much is happening
and my only motivation to turn the page is to hope that someone will
mysteriously disappear and leave me to wonder why. A plot that leads me to the edge of wanting to know what
will happen next is one of the things that makes me look forward to the nightly
read, picking up the next thread of the story. Some of my favorite authors are masters
of the unfolding story— like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Others may be short on substance (Agatha Christie and Dan Brown, for example), but can give me
sufficient pleasure with plot alone.
Then there’s characters. I have to care about them. Not
necessarily like them, but be interested enough that I want to hang out with
them. Settings and eras contribute as well. I like armchair traveling to
another time and place, but am also a sucker for American novels covering the
50’s to today, with references to events, places and situations I’ve lived
through. (For example, The Brothers K
, The Power of Their Singing
The Marriage Plot
, The Adventures of the Thunderbolt Kid.
Finally, there’s the writing itself. I love being wrapped up
in a good writer’s way of saying things, his or her rhythm, cadence, turn of
phrase, grammar and syntax. Little Bee
by Chris Cleave is an example of
a story that was brutally difficult, with situations and images I’d rather not
carry around with me, but with writing so exquisite that it elevated horror to
beauty. It’s the same kind of pleasure I get from the touch, phrasing and
harmonies of favorite jazz piano players. Doesn’t matter what the song is or
plot or characters, it’s the sound alone that touches me.
The icing on the cake is a compatability with the author’s
way of seeing the world, from politics to taste to humanitarian concerns.
Philosophy married with plot, character, settings and style. That’s the mother
lode of novel writing and reading.
Then non-fiction. Ever since discovering Joseph Campbell in
the late 1980’s, someone who came to wisdom through a practice of reading 9
hours a day for five years, I’ve kept up a steady diet of intriguing
non-fiction, often in waves of subject matter. The whole family of
“ologies”— anthropology, mythology, sociology, psychology, technology,
musicology, ethnomusicology, ecology and beyond. And etymology— the suffix
“ology” means a branch of knowledge and how fascinating it has been to climb
each part of the enormous tree of what we know and what interests us. Add to
the above readings on neuroscience, education, history, spirituality,
philosophy, politics, linguistics, music, jazz history and biography and humor
and you have a pretty good idea of my library and my love for ideas. Story
touches the heart, ideas light up the mind and both make me grateful that I
went to school and entered whole universes through the magic of the printed
The third pillar of literacy’s exquisite gifts is poetry,
the literary form that awakens the soul. An essay is about something, but a
poem is the thing itself— or as near to it as you can get. Poetry is not
every day fare for me, I dip in and out like a lake in different seasons. If
I’m cold, its wintry waters are often too bracing for my taste. But when the
borders of skin relax in the warmth of a sunny season in my life, nothing is
more refreshing than to enter those waters of sensous sound. I’ve heard it said
that only two things that we experience light up the whole brain and they are
deeply connected— poetry and music. The hush in a room when a good poem is
being recited is akin to Casals playing the Bach Cello Suites.
I’ve liked reading poetry ever since I discovered Whitman
and e.e.cummings as a teenager, but it is only in the last decade that I began
memorizing poetry and taking it off the page into a spoken, declaimed and
gestured art form and that has made all the difference. I now have the power to
change and charge the energy in a room with a simple combination of condensed
words that bring things to a halt. I did it recently when I recited Langston
Hughes long poem “Let America Be America Again” on Martin Luther King day. If you
can bring 90 Middle School students to a pindrop silence for seven minutes, you
know you’re on to something!
Fiction, non-fiction and poetry—the three pillars of literacy, food for the heart,
mind and soul. Constant companions my whole
life long and in the years to come. Thanks to the ancient Sumerians, Greeks, Medieval monks,
Johannes Gutenburg and the long illustrious legacy of people who lived their
lives and chose to tell about it in print.
P.S. On a lovely Sunday afternoon, trying to decide whether to
read Dostoyevsky, Alfred North Whitehead or W.B. Yeats— or go watch the
Superbowl. No contest. Go Niners!!!