‘Read any good books lately?’ was one of those popular conversation starters when I was young. Certainly more interesting than making small talk about the weather, and if someone was reading a good book and felt like telling about it, the conversation would quickly become quite stimulating.
There are some who believe that in our ultra-fast, iphone-in-every-pocket society, real books and their loyal readers are quickly becoming a thing relegated to some quaint history book, but I beg to differ. Despite seemingly all efforts to the contrary, the pasttime of reading books remains popular among all sorts of people from all walks of life upon the earth. Have you ever really stopped and asked yourself why this is so?
Dear Readers, I sense you are a clever bunch, and most likely are also of the opinion that Reading Books is one of life’s great necessities, as well as pleasures. Books are one of my great weaknesses, and upon finding a used bookstore in any town, any place, I cannot help myself: I enter, and become quickly engrossed. It is the story and the poetry within books which captures my imagination; the mystery and mayhem of our lives, the common sorrows and joys which we share, our horrors, deepest fears, highest aspirations. All of life lives within the pages of our stories, all which is known and much which is yet unknown and only surmised or intuited– or imagined.
Can stories save us? I think they can, and they in fact must. I am reading a couple of books from the library right now which speak to how stories read in childhood affect one’s adult life, shape life-changing decisions, impart knowledge which can steer one in another direction entirely, inspire one to greatness. One book, called Everything I need to know I learned from a children’s book, is comprised of notable people’s vignettes concerning the one (as if there is only one!) book which, read as a child, affected their lives the most. Interestingly, many of the people said they were around ten years old when they read it. Think back for a moment to the books you read when you were about ten. What kind of books were they? What type of stories did they tell? What did you learn from them? Which ones stand out the most in your memory and why?
“Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives… In childhood, all books are books of divination, telling us the future.” –Graham Greene
When I was ten years old, the stories I read and loved the very most were about magic. They usually involved ordinary children who by one way or another, became involved somehow with something magical. Then they usually had some type or series of adventures in which they figured out how to use the magical abilities they had stumbled upon. The overall theme was of an ordinary person finding the power to do something extraordinary. When I look back over the course of my life, I can see that I have lived in such a way as to welcome extraordinary experiences into an otherwise rather ordinary life. In other words, I have done what I could, in my own small and unique way, to create some magic in my life. For many years I went on a meandering path, one could say, sometimes wandering, sometimes very strongly directed, but always searching for what was unusual, interesting, fun, lively, new, as well as what was very old but being tried again in a new way. I have been a non-conformist to the degree that I have been safely able; never too extremely radical, yet always on the edge of society’s approval. And the stories and books I read as I made my way along were a reflection of my soul’s landscape. I can basically map out, through the books I was reading, what I was thinking and feeling about life at any particular moment in time.
Here is an anecdote by one of the notables in the Everything I need to know book, named Laura Miller. She sums up the experience of discovering the magic of books as a second grader thus:
“A teacher I idolized handed me a slim hardcover bound in grey fabric with the image of a little stag stamped on the front and said, “I think you’ll like this one.” It was her copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When I returned it to her, I told her that I didn’t know there were other people who had the kind of imagination that I had. It was this book that made a reader out of me. It showed me how I could tumble through a hole in the world I knew and into another, better one, a world fresher, more brightly colored, more exhilarating, more fully felt than my own.”
Zoom to present time. As some of you may know, I am currently fascinated by Ben Okri, a writer who is difficult to pin down in a few words. He is a rare combination of poet, storyteller, prophet, clairvoyant, mystic and visionary. His books are, for me, a bit like being ten years old again and feeling that sense of wonder and possibility which live in the heart and imagination and come alive through magical storytelling. I feel he is one of the Master storytellers alive on the planet today. Now I am engrossed in his latest novel, if you can call it that, called Starbook: A magical tale of love and regeneration. And it truly is a magical and timeless tale. In the beginning of the book, he writes,
“There is an ancient saying in the village that my mother used to tell me. They say it is not who you are that makes the world respect you, but what power it is that stands behind you. It is not you that the world sees, but that power.” He then goes on to write,
“Destiny conceals strange illuminations in the suffering life visits on us. The tale of fate is entangled with mysteries. Dare one say such and such shouldn’t have happened? History is replete with monstrosities that shouldn’t have happened. But they did. And we are what we are because they did. And history’s bizarre seeding has not yet yielded all of its harvest. Who knows what events will mean in the fullness of time? … In the presence of great things glimpsed in the book of life one can only be silent and humble. The ultimate meaning of history is beyond the mortal mind.”
From my recent investigations into the world of children’s literature one thing is strikingly clear. Story after story describe people embroiled in conflict, sometimes violence, life and death struggles, and grappling with sorrow and angst. Children, though young, are not only not immune to the realities of life on earth and beyond, but actually have a need and desire to understand the painful, as well as joyful, aspects of being alive, just as adults do. This may be obvious to many of you, but as a parent who raised three daughters, for years I had an overwhelming desire to shelter those tender young offshoots of mine from any and all tragedies of this world, and did so to the extent that I could. They themselves, however, sought after stories which told them of the more difficult aspects of life, of human and animal suffering, of anguish, of courage in the face of enormous odds against the hero or heroine. A year ago in the summer, my youngest daughter, who was eleven at the time, was absorbed by the Hunger Games series of books. We spent many hours on the phone together as she told me, bit by bit, what those stories are about, and especially about the main character, the girl who becomes the heroine as she goes to those horrific games in order to save not only her own family, but her entire community. To me, the story sounded gruesome and altogether violent and not something I fancied my eleven-year-old daughter to be reading. Yet she was fascinated, because she found something deeper and of real value in the story which she was able to take into her soul.
So yes, stories can save us, by educating us as to life’s problems and pains, its cruel realities and wonderous fantasies, its sweet revenge and just desserts, its peak moments of elucidation, its tenderest and most vulnerable places. All of us, young and old and in the middle, can and do benefit from the wisdom hard won through the main characters’ toils and troubles, their overcoming catastrophes, their explorations of unknown territories, their learning to love and become ever-more humane. Stories are powerful medicine in every age, every epoch, every culture. Without stories, humanity would quickly lose its very soul, the part of us which makes us feel, understand and love life and one another. Dear Readers, I hope you who are parents or have young children in your lives, encourage the young ones to read the best books, the timeless classics as well as the contemporary. You owe it to your children to instill in them a love of literature– the future of our world depends on it.