Thursday, March 16, 2017

Literary community: The importance of reading

Law Library, U.S. Capitol, circa 1895

Today’s post is the first installment in a three-part series.


Every writer has some relationship to the idea of a literary community. For many of us, it’s a very complicated one. But for all writers I know, their first experience with literary community happened when they were drawn into another writer’s imaginative space through the pages of a book.

For some, writing is a solo act, and the idea of a community is a distraction. If they commune, it is with a muse—the imagination, the deep mind, perhaps the divine. And there is also a kind of community that happens all alone when we immerse ourselves in the pages of books—we resonate with a story, poem, or essay, and we feel authentic closeness with the mind that birthed it.

As an aspect of community, reading is at once the most powerful and the least acknowledged. Books can change us. Books have changed me—this seems unassailably true about every book ever. Most have changed me for the better.

Reading is also an aspect that is frequently skipped by busy people, to their detriment—whether they are writers or not. Cutting ourselves off from other writers working today is especially harmful to those of us who try to write and publish, though, when we consider that we are both products and shapers of our time. A poem might happen on its own, but literature is a joint venture. The Odyssey is a fine poem and tale, but it would be an odd and probably even an irrelevant expression if it were produced today. 

When we neglect the writing world, we run the risk of getting fixated on the work we read when we were just starting out as writers. I’ve been in more than one college writing class where the professor was teaching from twenty-year-old books—excellent ones, but clearly dating from their own student days. Their failure to include anything newer gave me the sense that they weren’t current with their reading, and because of a paucity of current influences, it was beyond their ability to mix things up.

I know books don’t come with an expiration date. But that provocative and challenging poetry book from twenty years ago, as world-shattering as it may have been (and may still be), shouldn’t carry the whole weight of our relationship to verse. The world has changed; our zeitgeist has changed. The book we once carried in our purse all the way to the gate of the airport to greet some a forgotten boyfriend and tut-tut over a stain on a blue dress from the Gap, Marcy Playground loaded into our Walkman—who even is that person? Yet “there she was / like disco lemonade ….”

It seems ridiculous to stop there, doesn’t it? We’re wearing different clothes, different eye shadow, different attitudes and aspirations. Why would we wear the same fiction? How could we show ourselves in public that way?

Those works still matter, obviously—and not only as artifacts. They’re part of an ongoing conversation, and we refer to them all the time, both tacitly and overtly. They were a necessary step to the place we are, and they continue to have vital things to say. But the conversation moves on, and we have to move with it.

So there is something to be said for devoting ourselves to that part of literary community—the part that reads and reacts and feels. I wish we were a nation of devout readers. We couldn’t be anything but a compassionate nation then, and we would care for one another the way our fiction and poetry teach us, over and over, to do.

But as awesome as the community of books is in our lives, the literary community can’t stop at our desk. A responsible member of a community doesn’t just take from it; we give back to it. Giving back can mean something as small as offering a book recommendation or as large as organizing a literary event. I believe, though, that it is incumbent upon all of us to find ways to contribute meaningfully to the ongoing conversation.

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