The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Why Read

Fayetteville, North Carolina

Mary Zahran. Photo courtesy of author

By Mary Zahran

"There is no frigate like a book/To take us lands away. . . ."---Emily Dickinson

As a former English teacher and librarian, I believe it was inevitable that I would one day write a column about books. The Cumberland County Public Library's Big Read [in Fayetteville, North Carolina], which began March 26 and runs through April 30, offers me the perfect opportunity to write that column.

The Big Read, a nationwide project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, supports the communal reading of a single book, along with related events, such as theatrical productions, art exhibits, and lectures by biographers and other writers. This year's selection is Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, a novel about a deaf-mute in the Depression-era South.

While any effort to promote literacy should be applauded, I believe every read is a Big Read because of the impact any single book can have on a reader's life.

I consider the act of reading to be the original interactive pastime. Long before video games, Facebook, texting, or Twitter, there was the reader with a book in hand, accompanied only by an imagination. This compact, portable, quiet, non-electronic device has more power to transport, inform, entertain, illuminate, or inspire than a million machines created by humans, because it uses the power of the most astonishing machine that exists---the human brain.

Heart of the matter

Reading is, for me, much more than an intellectual exercise. It elicits deep emotional responses, which can vary greatly from one book to the next. I can laugh at the deliciously wicked social satire in Jane Austen's novels or the hysterically irreverent prose of David Sedaris; I can cry at the heart-wrenching sadness in Sophie's Choice, The Dollmaker, or The Kite Runner.

I can step into the past and into the shoes of historical figures as they recount their amazing life stories. Some of the most notable biographies I have ever read are more incredible than any work of fiction because they are true accounts. Frederick Douglass, Ulysses Grant, and Helen Keller share personal histories that defy belief: Each overcame adversity and seemingly insurmountable obstacles to leave an imprint on American culture and world history.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of reading is that it gives us a perspective on the human condition that life alone cannot offer. Books free us of the constraints of time, place, culture, race, and gender to offer us experiences we otherwise never would have. The writer distills universal human experience into a single moment of sublime awareness for a character.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, that moment comes for Scout, the novel's narrator, as she walks her reclusive, misunderstood neighbor, Boo Radley, back to his house after he rescues her and her brother from a savage attack by a townsman who is angry with their father for defending a black man.

Turning away from Boo's door to return home, Scout stands on his porch and remembers the events leading up to his courageous act. She recalls that her father, Atticus, once said that "you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough." We understand, through this young girl in the small Alabama town of Maycomb, the need for humans to look at life from another's point of view.

In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, that moment of awareness comes when Biff Brannon, owner of the New York Café, sees "a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time."

Ironically, this observation about the common struggle of all people to find meaning and connection in their lives comes from a man who lives apart from others, in almost total isolation. We learn about the importance of community from a recluse.

Books lead us to that "endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time." Consider for a moment a world without the words of Anne Frank, Huck Finn, or Tom Joad. Imagine life without the wry observations of Holden Caulfield or the steely determination of Scarlett O'Hara. Try to picture childhood without Jo March, Nancy Drew, or Harry Potter.

That's a pretty bleak landscape, isn't it?

So, join The Big Read, if you wish, or enjoy a big read of your own. Rediscover the classics. My favorite is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Discover a new title or a new author. But whatever you choose, once you step into that magical world of books, prepare to be forever changed.

Mary Zahran, a freelance writer, is a longtime Fayetteville resident and former English teacher and librarian. She is working on a series of essays chronicling the follies of human nature---an open-ended project. This essay originally appeared in the
Fayetteville Observer on April 20, 2010.

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