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FRONT PORCH: The liberating power of reading

FREDERICK DOUGLASS, the reformer and statesman, who extolled the virtues of reading.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS, the reformer and statesman, who extolled the virtues of reading.

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” - Frederick Douglass

Throughout the year, a group of women in their 40s and older meet as part of a book club in New Providence. Each takes turn hosting a meeting, which typically includes good food, wine and spirits, which lubricate discussions and equally tasty and intoxicating debates.

The reading companions seem to take to heart and body the 11th to 12th Century mathematician, astronomer and poet Omar Khayyam’s exuberant wisdom: “Give me a flagon of red wine, a book of verses, a loaf of bread, and a little idleness. If with such store … I should deem myself happier than a king in his kingdom.”

At the heart of the fellowship is lively and often soulful reflections on the novel chosen by the host for that month. The books chosen are works of fiction, exploring a constellation of stories and ideas and emotions traversing historical epochs and settings.

The members of the club share the joy, the exhilaration, the wellsprings of discovery that come with reading in general and reading as a group, with members sharing their insights, life experiences and perspectives.

Like companionship and wonderful food, reading may be one of the greatest joys in life, with the power to transform, heal, educate, agitate, inspire, infuriate and transport. Reading has the potential to be powerfully democratic and may be a portal to personal freedom and to liberation for oppressed peoples and groups.

Malcolm X

The great liberationist and civil rights leader El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) wrote and spoke of how reading and travel were among the greatest liberating forces in his life. A powerful and charismatic orator and thinker, he famously studied the dictionary in depth while incarcerated.

Malcolm X read voraciously, hungrily, while in prison, and would likely wonder today why so many of us with access to so many books and to the internet refuse to emancipate ourselves from all manner of mental slavery, including the failure to read.

From his prison cell, reading and conversion to Islam saved his life and transformed him into a champion for equality and social justice before his 1965 assassination at age 39.

No matter one’s circumstance in life, access to books and reading, especially where there are libraries, offers every citizen the same treasury of nonfiction, biographies, world literature and the elixirs of poetry.

Books and reading offer us the power of words, enfleshing our spirits and humanity. Words and language help us to struggle, to imagine, to survive, to transcend and overcome. In the words of the Native American Pulitzer Prize poet N Scott Momaday: “A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things.” He observes: “Anything is bearable if you can make a story out of it.”

Fundamental

Reading is fundamental for human happiness and development, priming us for growth and unimagined possibilities. University of Toronto researchers Maja Dijkic and Keith Oatley researched the effect of reading fiction.

The research pair found: “People who read more fiction are also better at reading other people’s emotions. It’s not that empathic people read more, but that reading promotes empathy.”

In her blog on the power of books to engender empathy, Rohit Meena enthuses: “When you feel empathy towards someone, emotions rush out. Their experiences become yours because you can relate to them and these experiences can be happy or sad. In empathy, you merely don’t understand what a person is feeling, but you are experiencing those feelings.”

Reading not only makes us more knowledgeable, it also has the potential to make us more humane and virtuous, depending on what we read.

Reading, like travel, is among the greatest ways to explore the world and to explore the human condition, including our foibles, conceits, deadly sins, virtues and necessary vulnerabilities.

The failure to read is like refusing to travel beyond one’s village or beyond one’s insularity and self-absorption. Like music, food and sex, reading affects our mood. Reading seizes our being, turns us upside down, shatters our pretensions and opens us to genuine conversion or metanoia of heart and soul.

Reading, like air and food and friendship are fundamental for life and for joy. Reading is one of the greatest ways for our imaginations to travel.

In reading the lyric poetry of the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) we experience the beauty of a rapidly industrializing Paris. From his work, The Flowers of Evil, we uncomfortably encounter ourselves:

“Stupidity, delusion, selfishness and lust,

torment our bodies and possess our minds,

and we sustain our affable remorse

the way a beggar nourishes his lice.”

Abundant new life and insights are at our fingertips from the ancient wisdom of the Greeks, including Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes to the “wickedly sumptuous” magical works of the Nobel Prize winner and Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda to the brilliance and feminist power of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In We Should All Be Feminists, she offers: “What if, in raising children, we focus on ability instead of gender? What if we focus on interest instead of gender?”

Bahamian writers

Here at home we are challenged to see beyond our insularity through Jeannie Thompson’s plays, including those found in her book, Bahamian Tapestry. In his writings and sermons over many decades Rev. Dr. Colin Archer has called us to a more holistic and revivifying Christian spirituality in the imitation of Christ.

There is also the varyingly luscious, endlessly provocative and often joyfully irreverent stories and poems found in the liberationist writings of Patricia Glinton Meicholas.

In her book Chasing Light, Glinton Meicholas invites us in the poem, “Staking Claim to Our Souls:

“We are our own discoverers,

staking claim to territory

too many centuries colonized

burning flags of conquest,

too long planted in our souls,

repurposing manacles,

forging keys to liberate creation.

“With the hammer of pen and paintbrush

on the resilient anvil of canvas and page,

drawing from their deep dye

bold strokes of peace, metaphors of hope,

to serve as viceroy and governor

of a New World of Freedom.”

Our individual lives and our lives in common are much poorer, less rich, less enchanting, less promising when we fail to encounter the written word and the oral literary traditions that make us human and which may help us wrestle demons and civilize various instincts.

Imagine having access to a buffet of wonderful foods and only eating the rice and drinking water. This is what life is like for many of us who have access to more books than our ancestors could ever imagine, as well as to the Internet.

That group of women who gather in fellowship do so for enjoyment and for much more. They do so also to enrich their hearts and souls and to confront and to seduce the tedium and difficulties of life which may find a balm and a necessary escape among reading companions.

A former mentor who is passed away and who taught Caribbean literature and the classics of the Western canon, both in which he delighted.

A master and teacher of the English language, he quipped in one of his Christmas newsletters after the removal of a section of his colon, that he was now mastering the semi-colon.

Nearing his nonagenarian years, this Jesuit father mused toward the end of his life that he was finding more solace in the classics than in Scripture, in both of which he discovered abundant life.

A friend recalls going into her teenage daughter’s room just before the latter was about to leave for university. The mother scanned the room, flushed with memories. She realized that few of the toys she bought for her daughter were to be found.

Yet the bookshelves were filled with just about every book she and her husband and others had given her daughter over the years. “Now that you’re gone off to college, should I give away these books?”

There was an emphatic, “No!” in reply. “I’m saving these books to pass on to my children someday.”

Comments

BONEFISH 1 year, 3 months ago

The Bahamas is a barely literate country. Most Bahamians don't read much. Libraries in this country are both under resourced and not fully utilized. I was surprised that the yellow building next to the Stephen Dillet primary school was a library. I never saw any body enter that building. The main library for Broward County in Fort Lauderdale was over six or seven stories high. I would not talk about most of the book stores on this island.

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