Attentive Reading

During this odd time of social isolation I find myself picking up books that have been in my stack either unread or partially read for some time. Oddly, the last two revolve around the great tragedies of the last centuries; the “transatlantic” slave trade and the exterminations of World War II. They are slim volumes that would be read quickly if they were less important or less affecting.

Barracoon, just completed, is a non-fiction work written by Zora Neale Hurston begun in 1927. It was extremely difficult for her to find a publisher and this is a re-issued version with a foreword by Alice Walker. Hurston, a cultural anthropologist, managed to find the last survivor of the last African slave cargo ship brought to America. The book is the story of this survivor, of how he was taken and how he was living then and in that present time in America. Barracoon was the word for the slave barracks where slaves were held for transport and sale. The book is resonant with a sorrow I cannot begin to understand. It is written exactly as she heard him speak, in a difficult pidgeon. And so it requires close concentration to get the meaning. I am generally a fast reader but this held me to a slower, more attentive pace. It is a heartbreaking account of a tragic life, ripped from his home and family, sold into slavery, finding a way to live in “freedom”, losing his wife and all his children. This is his account of heartbreak in his simple, affecting words; of looking across to the hill where his entire Americky family lay buried at the time he recounted his story to Hurston. This pierces the heart of the African American identity in a visceral and personal way. This is not an observer account, it is a subjective memoir spoken in his own voice with very little interjection by the “author”. Everyone should read this as a stepping stone to some small understanding.

And then, as if this wasn’t sufficient sorrow, I picked up Night by Elie Wiesel. This was the first thing he wrote, again reissued. It wasn’t popular when published as nobody wanted to acknowledge the truth of the european extermination. It is his first hand account of the time that, in denial still, his community was first turned into ghetto and later emptied of Jews, transported first to Birkenau, then dispersed to the ovens or work camps. It is his first hand account of the last time he saw his neighbors, loaded into cattle cars, and then his own family’s journey. It is his account of the last time he saw his mother and his seven year old sister as they walked to the crematorium. It is his account of witnessing his father’s death. It is his account of his loss of youth and faith and humanity. I have stood in the crematorium at Birkenau, remarkably intact. I have stood in the ruins at Dachau. And as much as I felt the presence of what happened in those places, and have seen the evidence – the coats, the hair, the shoes – I still cannot truly imagine the horror and enormity of the evil. He describes watching truckloads of babies being loaded into the fire, how do you survive the memory of that? For some reason, one of the most compelling images in this slim volume is of Jews speaking the Kaddish Yatom, the prayer for the dead, for themselves as they marched to their death. This is the prayer we speak for our dead, for others. It is a prayer of praise, not of death. And despite his loathing of any prayer praising a God that would allow the abominations to happen, he found himself reciting it as he thought he was about to die, so ingrained it was in him.

So why am I reading these things? I have no idea, they were next in the stack. But being in isolation allows me the space to read them with attention, with care and with thoughtfulness. That is my book report for today. Shalom

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Things I Want My Son To Know #19 ~ Love Books

Learn to love reading. There is a world of knowledge and imagination out there. You are absorbed in the virtual and technological worlds. But you are missing the life of imagination you had as a child.

In every area of our lives technology has stripped us of imagination. There are fantasy worlds and fantasy games and fantasy movies; but those fantasies are spelled out for us. In those fantasies the people all look like movie stars or the anime creations of someone else’s imaginations.

On the internet you can look up anything you want to know about, you can find information but you can’t necessarily confirm its accuracy, currency or relevance. Anyone can publish on the internet, make themselves an expert and how would you know if they really are. You can track down credentials but do they publish a bibliography?

You cannot learn anything without reading, whether on line or off. In every area of your life there will always be things to learn. You can learn much by experience, but experts in everything put down in words what they have mastered about the thing you are learning about and how you can do the same. The experience of others is only transmitted by words, generally written (like this blog!). In order to excel at anything, you have to learn about it.

People always ask if I have seen movies made from books. I always want to read the book first and I am almost always disappointed by the movie. When I read fiction (which is not for everyone I realize), I am able to populate the world of the book with my own vision of the scenery, my own imagination creates how the people look; the author creates how they act. And so the book is the stage setting for my own fantasy, not that of anyone else.

Don’t lose the life of the imagination; read and create your own worlds. Don’t neglect the life of learning; the experiences of generations, experts and whole cultures documented for you. Books may be becoming obsolete but you should hold on to them as long as you can. And don’t believe everything you read.

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