“The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings.”
-Jorge Luis Borges,
The Library of Babel
I cannot imagine a life without reading. This act of communion between a writer and a reader has parallels only with the intimacy between lovers and the mystical relationship between man and the divine. This comment may appear to be hyperbole, especially as it comes from someone whose early education consisted principally of reading comic books and who has always favoured an entirely catholic approach to literature (from Aesop to Zafón), but what bibliophile among us has not fallen under the spell of some scribe’s alluring enchantment.
Take the first line of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s breathtaking fabulist novel, “One Hundred Years of Solitude:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Or how about one of the closing scenes in the Amazing Spider-Man #10, March, 1964, the first comic-book I ever owned, when Spider-Man’s principal detractor, Daily Bugle owner, J. Jonah Jameson, confesses the reasons for what will be his life-long hatred of the costumed hero:
“”All my life”, he says, “I’ve been interested in only one thing – making money! And yet Spider-Man risks his life day after day with no thought of reward. If a man like him is good…is a hero…than what am I? I can never respect myself while he lives! Spider-Man represents everything that I’m not! He’s brave, powerful, and unselfish! The truth is, I envy him! I, J. Jonah Jameson – millionaire, man of the world, civic leader – I’d give everything I own to be the man that he is! But I can never climb to his level. So all that remains for me is – to try to tear him down – because, heaven help me – I’m jealous of him!””
Heady reading for a 10-year-old boy who was only interested in seeing his hero clobber the villains and wrap them up with his gooey webs.
But good books, even comic books, challenge us and confront us and dare us to be much more than we are.
Franz Kafka wrote:
“A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
Kafka wrote fantastic fiction. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, awakens one morning to find that he as been transformed into a monstrous insect. As strange and absurd as this is, we can’t help but be drawn into the story and Gregor’s helplessness and despair as he confronts his condition.
“Gregor’s glance then turned to the window. The dreary weather–the rain drops were falling audibly down on the metal window ledge–made him quite melancholy. “Why don’t I keep sleeping for a little while longer and forget all this foolishness,” he thought. But this was entirely impractical, for he was used to sleeping on his right side, but in his present state he could not get himself into this position. No matter how hard he threw himself onto his right side, he always rolled onto his back again. He must have tried it a hundred times, closing his eyes so that he would not have to see the wriggling legs, and gave up only when he began to feel a light, dull pain in his side which he had never felt before.”
In his best-known novel, The Trial, the protagonist, Josef K. is arrested, prosecuted, tried, convicted and executed or crimes that neither he nor the reader ever get to know.
From the day that we are born, we are thrust into a world that makes no attempt to make sense of itself for us. (Winter in the city where I grew up, for example, where anti-freeze could freeze and subzero temperatures created a crystal ice-fog and days were often filled with brilliant sunlight (even sun dogs – halos around the sun)… How could it be, I asked, that the sun could shine so blindingly yet offer no warmth?). Our own experiences are closed and shuttered. How can others know what we know, how can we feel what others feel? How are we able to know even what we know.
Writing down our thoughts and reading them back is a powerful method of self-exploration. It is difficult for us to communicate directly with our unconscious, but through keeping a journal or through free-writing, we can explore our own thoughts as if they were the thoughts of another.
The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, based his weird and wonderful exploration of poetry, philosophy, theosophy and arcane knowledge, “A Vision”, on a system created from his wife George’s ‘automatic writing’.
On the afternoon of October 24th 1917, four days after my marriage, my wife surprised me by attempting automatic writing. What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences. ‘No,’ was the answer, ‘we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.’
‘Introduction to “A Vision” ‘ from ‘A Packet for Ezra Pound’ (1937), AV B 8
Whether George Yeats had genuine communication with some power beyond herself or was merely in touch with her own subconscious mind, many of Yeats’s poetic images and metaphors (gyres and other archetypal symbols) were inspired by this strange ‘system’.
You can explore your own wonderful capacity for tapping into your powerful subconscious mind through a journalistic exercise called ‘free writing’.
Very simply, take a blank sheet of paper, set a time (say five minutes), start the timer and for the entire five minutes put pen to paper, never stopping to pause, writing continuously for the entire allotted time. If no thoughts come to mind, then write “nothing, nothing…” until a new thought comes to hand.
You will be surprised at what you have written, but could never know before writing, what has been translated directly from mind to pen!
Reading depends at least as much upon the reader and their experience as it does upon the ability of the writer.
“Tis the good reader that makes the good book; in every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides hidden from all else and unmistakenly meant for his ear; the profit of books is according to the sensibility of the reader; the profoundest thought or passion sleeps as in a mine, until it is discovered by an equal mind and heart.”
We are often dumfounded when authors are unable to account for the full meaning of their work or are surprised by the interpretation of readers.
I recently re-read “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll, a delightful tale, brim-full of the fantastic yet wholly familiar. The wonderfully colourful and imaginative tale has been remarked on as political satire full of hidden meaning and references, but Carroll himself wrote (on the ‘Hunting of the Snark’, but I think it applies to all fiction):
“I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense. Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means. So, whatever good meanings are in the book, I’m glad to accept as the meaning of the book.”
Literacy, or the ability to read is an essential skill. The United Nations defines literacy as:
“…a human right, a tool of personal empowerment and a means for social and human development. Educational opportunities depend on literacy.”
The UN estimates that “one in five adults is still not literate and about two-thirds of them are women”. This unequal access to education, to development, to knowledge creates disparities and contributes to poverty, hunger, war, infant mortality and reduced life expectancy. 67 million of the world’s children do not have access to schools. While most of us take reading for granted, lack of reading skills can lead to unforeseen and tragic results.
I once worked with an adult learner who had no reading skills. He told me that when he was younger he went to northern Canada to work in the nickel mines. Rather than admit his disability, he faked a back injury, a non-existent injury for which he was subsequently treated – with surgery! This surgery cascaded into a series of complications and genuine injuries. The whole series of misfortunes began when, as a young boy living on a farm, he was told by a teacher he was stupid and unable to learn. He left school then, never to return.
The joys of childhood reading (and being read to) are immeasurable. I remember the joy at listening to stories and rhymes read aloud… from “patty-cake, patty-cake” and “round and round the garden goes the teddy bear”… to Dylan Thomas’s reading of a Child’s Christmas in Wales. I loved to read to my children (even when they complained that I was snoring… Who me? Never!).
The Argentine born Canadian writer and anthologist Alberto Manguel, recalls the years when he was a young man and one of the fortunate few to read to the blind fabulist, Jorge Luis Borges:
I shoulder my way through the crowds on Calle Florida, I enter the newly-built Galería del Este, I come out on the other side and cross Calle Maipú and, leaning on the red marble façade of No 94, I press the button marked “6B”. I enter the cool hall of the building and climb the six flights of stairs. I ring the bell and the maid opens the door, but almost before she can let me in Borges appears from behind a heavy curtain, holding himself very straight, his grey suit buttoned up, his white collar and striped yellow tie slightly lopsided, shuffling a little as he comes towards me. Blind since his late fifties, he moves hesitantly even in a space he knows as well as this. His right hand reaches out and he welcomes me with a distracted boneless grip. There are no further formalities. He turns and leads the way into the living room and sits erect on the couch facing the entrance. I take a seat in the armchair to his right and he asks (but his questions are almost always rhetorical): “Well, shall we read Kipling tonight?”
During the 1980’s I was fortunate enough to manage the production of a small recording studio for the blind. We recorded mainly text books and a small amount of fiction and non-fiction for the general reader. It was a genuine pleasure to listen to a gifted narrator bring print to life and we would often get requests for certain volunteers to read specific materials. As Charles Clarke remarked:
“The fluent reader sounds good, is easy to listen to, and reads with enough expression to help the listener understand and enjoy the material.”
This was our goal, and very often, to ours and our readers’ delight, we were able to achieve just that.
The reading space is a magical one, inhabited by ideas and dreams and the vast landscape of the human imagination. It can also trite and mundane and endlessly tedious. In short, it reflects the human condition. But a really good book can change us, offering unlimited vistas and possibilities.
The African-American activist and reformist, Malcolm X said:
“I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading has opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.”
It is impossible to begin to do justice to the role that reading has played in my life. In many ways it is my life; at least my life is inseparable from that which I have read… I have no real idea of where the books end and where I begin… I may be a mediocre writer, but I will always be a great reader!
Of course the act of reading has to do with letters and sounds, decoding, pronunciation and comprehension – mechanics which most of us have internalized – but somewhere between the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, exists the world within the world, the Library of Babel, vast and infinite as space.
Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t’ai chi ch’uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition. Miles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article cannot be re-published without permission.