The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Guest Blog from the 6th floor

May 31, 2007
Washington, DC

As you?ve probably guessed from David?s previous blogs, there?s a whole battalion of us at the NEA working furiously to get folks reading again. I work in communications, which means I do everything from helping Big Read communities develop their own publicity programs to sternly admonishing Messr. Kipen that he?d better get me a new blog or else...Although I love my job, as an avid reader, there is one thing I find utterly confusing about the Big Read: Why are we doing this? I mean, how can people not want to read? Full disclosure: I?m a poet, so, to a great degree, my career depends on readers. But even if I hadn?t grown up to be a writer, if I?d instead become a teacher or an actress or a singer, I can?t imagine my life still being my life if I wasn?t also a reader.

Twenty years ago Paulette Beete (St. Francis Prep, Class of 1987) became a poet because she decided writing her own poetry during English class was way better than actually reading Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Donne. Favorite books included anything by S.E. Hinton and Victoria Holt, Jane Eyre, and the Matt Dillon Quiz Book.

Having started my education in the West Indies, I started reading when I was four, and haven?t stopped. Everything?s been fair game -- from all four volumes of Louisa May Alcott?s Little Women series to the book on satellites my first grade teacher caught me reading in the closet cum library when I was most likely supposed to be doing something else to the Harlequin Romances I pilfered from my mother?s library (also in a closet, it turns out). As I spooned sugar-soaked cornflakes into my mouth each morning, I read the cereal box and the hot chocolate box and the coffee label and any other words within reach. On car trips, my sister and I loved to read out loud the various road signs that populated Merrick Road, the Belt Parkway, the Van Wyck Expressway...(Yes, we still do this!) I?m fairly certain I?m the only high schooler who, to this day, proudly attributes my high verbal score on the SATs to the litter of polysyllabic words -- ethereal, ephemeral -- I ingested from my steady diet of bodice-rippers.

Last week I asked uberlibrarian Nancy Pearl, ?What?s the harm if people stop reading?? Her reply? ?Through books and reading, we can have any number of lives, and we can go anywhere, and we can do anything. And we can be anyone.? While I wholeheartedly agree that books can take us outside of ourselves, one of the joys of reading for me, is the fact that books take me INSIDE of myself. Though navel gazing gets a bad rap in this age of made-up memoirs and TMI web sites, I believe that we can?t connect passionately and profitably with another person unless we have some understanding of our own spiritual and mental innards.

For example, in high school -- Mr. Castellano?s senior honors English class -- we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I was outraged not at the use of the n-word, but at the fact that there were people who wanted it stricken from the novel. ?But that?s the way people spoke then -- what else was Twain supposed to say?? I couldn?t comprehend it as an issue of race or sensitivity -- it was a crystalline case of foolish censorship. Nearly 20 years later -- although I still think the n-word is necessary to Twain?s novel -- I?m much more sensitive to its appearance in literature, questioning if the author has a right to use that word, if it?s really necessary to the story, or is the author perhaps just a lazy storyteller. Whether or not these questions are just, my reaction to the n-word in literature today is markedly different than it was 20 years ago when I was 17, a marked reflection of how my own thoughts on race are no longer so clear cut and how I?m no longer so oblivious to such resonances.

Need another example of how reading has helped me understand who I am, who I?ve become? Twenty years ago, I would have been highly uncomfortable with the dialect in Zora Neale Hurston?s Their Eyes Were Watching God. A fairly new American, I was mortified by my parent?s accents and vocabulary -- the way my Guyanese father pronounced Sharon with a long a, the way my Trinidadian mother said ?zaboca? and ?sive? instead of ?avocado? and ?scallion.? I remember being embarrassed after Mrs. Gallari corrected me in second grade when I said ?zed? instead of ?z?. I thought I?d already become thoroughly American. Yet reading Hurston two decades later, I found myself seduced in large part by her effortless use of dialect -- something I?d now like to emulate in my poems about my family?s early lives in Trinidad. For the children of immigrants -- especially when one is an immigrant oneself as I am -- getting to the place where you are comfortably both American and "other" is momentous, an unequalled rite of passage peculiar only to new immigrants. If I hadn?t found Hurston, if I hadn?t read The Joy Luck Club or Bless Me, Ultima, I wouldn?t have become so clearly conscious of the shift I?d made, the fact that I now celebrated the ?other? and valued the rhythms and peculiarities of my West Indian culture as highly as my American culture in my work and in my life.

These are only two examples of the ways I?ve met and measured myself over the years as I?ve read my way through literary novels and genre novels and everything in between. My encounters with literature are not the only reason I?ve made, at least I hope I?ve made, a minor success of my life, but neither are those encounters, those opportunities for self reflection and knowledge least among the many reasons. So, that?s why we?re doing the Big Read -- because I am 100% certain that every reader has similar stories of how literature has enhanced, changed, challenged, or affirmed her life, time and time again. In her memoir Journal of a Solitude poet-novelist May Sarton wrote, ?I have written novels to find out what I thought about something and poems to find out what I felt about something.? I read -- and encourage you to read -- to do both.