This is the fourth column in Reading Room, a biweekly collective column on reading and life. The column will go in rounds, with the four contributors each responding to a prompt chosen by the group. The first prompt is What kind of book would you most like to read at this moment? The order of the columnists on this round will be: Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Kamran Javadizadeh and Timothy Aubry.
I have always been a dutiful reader. For most of my adult life, the question of what I want to read has never seemed as the urgent as the question of what I am supposed to read. Which means that, even now, I’m still basically the college freshman I once was, diligently crossing titles off the mental checklist that only ever grows longer. As with many compulsions, the reasons for this sense of obligation are mysterious to me. But I suppose I must at some point have believed that literature was a deeply important human experience, one that I could help foster by becoming an English professor. If I sound unsure, it’s because I have struggled lately to believe in the mission to which I have devoted myself.
I wish I could blame COVID-19 for my loss of faith, but I know it dates back further. Tasked with acting inspired, moved, transported by literature in front of roomfuls of students on a weekly basis, I have found it increasingly difficult in recent years to summon the requisite emotions. In fact, I have sometimes wondered whether literature really is worthy of devotion or whether I have just been conning myself and—with mixed results—my students. When, several weeks ago, all nonessential workers were asked to stay home, I felt a pang of self-recognition.
And yet, ironically, since the classes I was teaching at the time continued, I was also in a position where I had to urge my students to keep reading. I had to ask them to find a relatively quiet place in their crowded apartments and sit at their computers discussing what they had read. Why was I insisting on this? What purpose did it serve? One student told me he still had to go to the construction site where he worked, but everyone was trying to stay six feet apart. Another informed me that both her parents were sick, and she had been instructed to remain in her bedroom indefinitely. I expressed sympathy and then turned the conversation back to the text. “Stay safe, everyone!” I announced at the end of our Zoom session, “and don’t forget to read through chapter four.”
Since my whole family is now home all the time, I need to sequester myself in my son’s bedroom to get any work done. Through the door, I can hear him doing his math in the living room, arguing with my wife, food being eaten, dishes being done, news on the radio announcing fatality rates. I’m teaching Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping for my American Novel class, which I’m excited about because A) it’s a book that’s never before failed to revive my sense of the world as worthy of awe and wonder and B) I’ve taught it already and I know I can get through it quickly and return to all the other things I need to do.
One evening that summer we came into the kitchen and Sylvie was sitting in the moonlight, waiting for us. The table was already set, and we could smell that bacon had already been fried. Sylvie went to the stove and began cracking eggs on the edge of the frying pan and dropping them shoosh into the fat. I knew what the silence meant, and so did Lucille. It meant that on an evening so calm, so iridescently blue, so full of the chink and chafe of insects and fat old dogs dragging their chains and belling in the neighbors’ dooryards—in such a boundless and luminous evening, we would feel our proximity with our finer senses.
It’s a perfect passage for people trapped inside their apartments staring out their windows. Yet I am unmoved. I’m alarmed to discover my old underlinings practically gouged into the page. I remember spending an evening with the lights turned off to see what it was like. I look at my notes and find the following: “Idle chatter closes us off from the world. Robinson’s trying to capture the condition of silence, but she needs to put words on it. So the meaning of some of these moments resides in the silence after we finish the sentence.” I sit in silence after I finish the sentence, waiting for the epiphany to arrive. It doesn’t. The sentence is just syllables strung together. Have I lost my capacity to feel literature?
Then I do what I’ve always done as a dutiful reader—move on to the next book on the syllabus. In this case, it’s Louise Erdrich’s The Painted Drum. I’ve never read it before, so I have to pay much closer attention than I did to Housekeeping. I feel guilty devoting several hours a day to reading, but in a kind of fight-or-flight reaction to all the pressures around me, my attention rivets itself to the text. I don’t find it extraordinary. But I do begin to feel the effects that reading literature carefully can have on me. My mind composes itself; the oxygen seems to reach deeper into my body; the world relaxes its grip.
Erdrich’s novel is about a drum made by a Native American man broken by his wife’s desertion and his daughter’s death. It’s about lives going off track and then sometimes righting themselves. It’s about how the labor of crafting well-made objects can be therapeutic, but also what happens when those objects are taken from the communities they are meant to serve. The cast of characters is large and initially confusing, but on my fourth day of reading I start to see how their storylines are going to converge. While I find the slow process of tracking the various characters’ journeys toward resolution almost hypnotically satisfying I also begin looking forward to the final page, to that moment of culmination that well-designed novels are sometimes able to produce when everything feels connected, when the end recalls the beginning, and when I briefly seem to experience the whole thing all at once. Ideally, after I’m finished, I’ll get that strange post-reading high, that feeling of being both outside and inside my own life, like my quotidian experiences have assumed a novelistic shape, like I’m revisiting this particular afternoon from the afterlife, free of all the worry and dread that prevented me from appreciating it the first time around.
But I don’t quite make it. I have just ten pages left when I have to take over parenting duties. Just before I put the book down, however, I come across a passage that initially throws me off and then stays with me while I’m doing gymnastics with my kid on the old mattress we dragged into the living room. The narrator, who is part Ojibwe, receives a letter telling her the drum she returned to its rightful owner is bringing good luck to the community. “With the drum back, there is a good feeling here. People have come together around it.” She’s fascinated but not ready to “throw [herself] into Native traditions,” because “salvation seems a complicated process with many wobbling steps.”
At first I am annoyed. The narrator’s voice suddenly sounds trite, too eager for uplift. But then it occurs to me there might be another reason I’m resisting her experience. Contemplating a sacred object thought to heal and redeem those who come into contact with it, she admits she cannot say, “I believe, I am convinced.” Is it possible I identify too much with her? The source of the drum’s power, Erdrich suggests, is precisely the conviction of those who “come together around it”—a conviction inspired by the drum but also responsible for its transformative influence. Might there be an answer here to my own dilemma? If I had conviction, in other words, would literature magically regain its power?
But of course it wasn’t conviction that briefly allowed me to remember why I decided to read books for a living. It was simply a peculiar array of circumstances and the unacknowledged need born out of them that forced me to sit in a room with a novel and give it my undivided attention and trust. What might send me back to that place? A sense of duty no longer seems to do it. Is there something else? Should I try to read less diligently, more capriciously? Should I start, as Sarah proposed in her opening column, finally heeding my friends’ emphatic recommendations—not out of a sense of obligation, but out of love, a desire to come together around something? I ask these questions in all earnestness. And I’m hoping this peculiar experiment we’ve embarked upon will help, will be one of the situations that brings me to attention. Because, especially during this time of restless confinement, I am quick to fall back into doubt or distraction, and my steps are wobbly.
Image credit: Ojibwa drum ca. 1875, Detroit Institute of Arts