I didn’t read my first book until twenty, and the reading of that very first book was slow and painful. Back then, I didn’t love the feel of the pages in my hands. They were lizard’s tails. Every time I’d finish one, the book seemed to grow another in its place.
But I kept going, replacing favorite TV shows with classic novels. Spending a summer with Tolstoy and Gogol. Fighting with myself to read the collected stories of Flannery O’Connor, because they are painful for an African American to read.
My creative writing professor, the exiled Iranian novelist, Farnoosh Moshiri, had said O’Connor had much to teach me, in spite of her racism.“It’s worth the tears,” she told me. And with her stern look contradicted by the bright eyes and the playful grin that always danced across her lips, she told me, “You must know the Russians. It’s very important. To reach your full potential, you must know your Russians.”
The collection of O’Connor’s stories and a nice copy of Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina are among my most prized possessions. I didn’t grow up around people who were readers, but now I have the most extensive library of any of my friends, many of whom who did grow up around books and people who read them.
Toni Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye, was the book that introduced me to the greatness of literature. Since then, I’ve read all of her novels, most at least twice. When I read Norman Mailer’s nonfiction masterpiece, The Executioner’s Song, I actually had to put the book down for a week, two thirds of the way through, because the story was so emotionally powerful that my heart couldn’t take it all in one big dose.
It was fantastic work, but I look at it on my shelf, and it frightens me with its power. A Confederacy of DUNCES, the masterful novel by John Kennedy Toole, who committed suicide with the future Pulitzer Prize winning novel nothing more than a stack of papers left behind at his mother’s New Orleans house, is without question the funnies thing I’ve ever read.
I’ve read Ralph Ellison’s, Invisible Man, seven or eight times, and it has literally changed my life. It’s consistently listed as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.
These books, some with weathered covers and torn pages, are not some relics of the past to me. They are perhaps the most profound evidence of our humanity. They are not mere words, easily downloaded onto the newest app or tablet. They are the life’s work of the Gods.
I did college later in life. I never thought I’d make it there. But there were a few assigned books I could only get online. The words were there, but the feelings were missing. Books lose some of their magic on computer screens. It is a foreign place for them to live.
I do understand that time marches on, and that change is as inevitable as death itself, but a great book is a mountain to me. It literally stands the test of time.
Sometimes I go to the bookshelf, and I pick up something great I’ve read years ago. I remember some greatness within its pages, some moment seared into my mind as if I’d lived it myself, and there is a feeling I get from holding the book in my hands, or even finding the passage I’m thinking about, that can only be had with an actual book.
The screen of a tablet feels like nothing. It is cold and hard, and lacks generosity. It’s convenient for sure, but something is missing. Something the author wanted us to know or feel, is lost in the download.
There is something magical in Virginia Woolf’s, To The Lighthouse and Graham Greene’s, The End of the Affair, and Toni Morrison’s, Beloved. And the page, the physical page that can be turned back and forth with delighted fingers to reread a great passage or sentence, or simply to marvel a the mastery of its creator, is an essential ingredient of the formula.
I know that people will go on with their tablets. Many will simply read on smart phones. But these are the things of a country and indeed, a world, that reads less and less with each passing day.
Libraries are now filled with books that go unread. The greatest of our living authors struggle to make it on professor’s salaries. Newspapers die. Tablets and computer screens are not stopping the world’s steady march towards idiocy.
But it is the book, the magical, fantastic book, that can save us all. A message read in a book resonates. It sticks. A child who reads books is a child who dreams.
I love books. I love when they make me laugh. I love when they make me cry. I love the laughter within them. I love to caress their pages. There is nothing like the feeing you get from turning the very last page of a great book.
I sometimes think that if my house burned down one day, I’d be sad to watch as the flames swallowed so much of my life, my dreams, my memories, but it would be the books that would make me run back into the fire to save them. The books.