My first year of college I took a course in Arthurian literature. There were fewer than ten of us in the class. After a couple months of smothering our brains in downy volumes of medieval and Gothic-revival romances our professor experienced (or manufactured for our benefit) a crisis of conscience. Why of all things, he asked us, should we waste our time with books like these? When it comes down to it, why read fiction at all? Aren’t books irrelevant? Isn’t the world simply exploding with more serious concerns?
That was 1991. It hadn’t been long since the fall of the Berlin wall, the Soviet Union was just loping off the stage, and Nelson Mandela was free in South Africa. The world as we and our parents had known it was ceasing to be. These were times historians called “momentous” – and had we really shut ourselves indoors to read Chrétien de Troyes and Malory? Our professor, being a wise man, assigned Cervantes for the rest of the course and invited us to feel ourselves on Rocinante’s bony back.
Twenty years later we appear to be in something like momentous times again. Certainly they’re momentous for those engaged in the recent uprisings in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, and other places. What with the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, the launch of one – or should I say two – wars of questionable wisdom, the collapse of the world economy, and natural disasters in Haiti and Indonesia that have produced human suffering on a scale to dwarf even Voltaire’s Lisbon earthquake, the past decade has felt uncomfortably momentous.
I confess to occasional pangs of conscience when I switch off the radio or set the virtual newspaper aside with a sigh to pick up a book. I feel a twinge of something like guilt when I decline to inform myself further on the goings-on of the world at large and turn instead to the endless revision of my novel or to writing a brief nothing about a clever passage from Stendhal. I hear the question again: Isn’t the world simply exploding with more serious concerns?
The answer is, Yes… And then again, No.
I don’t want to make a lofty defense of bookwormism. Long-winded and complicated apologies rarely convince anyone that doesn’t already share the apologist’s own sympathies. I know that I’m an obsessive person and in certain respects not very representative of my species, most of whom have more balanced personalities and interests than I do. With shockingly few exceptions, the only things I really care about in this world are books: so of course I’m going to find ways of justifying myself to myself.
Even so, I do want to suggest – meekly, cautiously – that being human means something more than politics or economics or geology or weather. Of course it may, and frequently does, mean these things too. But where human experience overflows the bounds of outward necessities, there art and culture are found. Literature, as the art and culture of words, is an attempt to enjoy and account for and preserve that excess. I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s sometimes life’s excesses that are most precious, most irreplaceable.
Reading a book is a human encounter. Reading well is not an escape but a shared search for answers to questions that are sometimes obvious, sometimes sensed only with gloved hands in a dark room. I like to think that when politics and economics and geology and weather conspire to murder and oppress, picking up a book can be a way of giving a damn. I may be a fool – maybe I’m still bouncing on Rocinante’s back – but I like to believe that reading is a form of solidarity. We read for ourselves, but we read for each other too.