Why read? Do we read for entertainment, for information, or because we "have to" in order to pass courses or do our work? Yes. We read for all of these reasons. But we also read because books help us find answers--or at least ways of thinking about-- the questions we face in life. Confronted by life's puzzles, we ask questions of our parents, have earnest discussions with our friends, and read. Books make it possible for us to benefit even from the experiences of those long dead. Plato is still eager to tell us what he learned from watching Socrates drink the cup of hemlock Frederick Douglass is always ready to tell us what he learned as a child when he saw his aunt stripped and beaten by their "master." All we have to do is listen. Here is how Machiavelli described to his benefactor the time he spent reading:
On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day's clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them. (See Niccolo Machiavelli's Letter to Francesco Vettori, 10 December 1513).
As early as 1340 A.D., buddhist monk and author Yoshida Kenko wrote: "To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations--such is a pleasure beyond compare." And in a similar spirit, Montaigne described his own solitary library tower as "one of the most populous places you can imagine," a place where he can hear "a vortex of varied and converging voices . . . the conversaton of the ancient Greeks and Romans representing the different modes of lnaguage -- written, read, spoken, translated, exchanged, meditated -- and which overcomes absence, distance, decline, and death."
Whether consciously or unconsciously, each time a person sits down to write, s/he is entering a conversation with his/her future audience and past life. A woman who writes an outraged letter protesting the light sentence awarded a drunk driver may be responding in part to the judge or to the article about the trial, but she may also be responding to earlier editorials and articles she has read, changes in the laws regarding drunk driving, television programs that make drunkeness a source of humor, and/or even a personal experience of the loss of a loved one in an accident or the difficulty of living as the child of an alchoholic. Each time we write, we are offering our responses to the books we have read, the ideas we have encountered, the people we have known, the events we have experienced, and times in which we have lived. Machiavelli saw his book, The Prince, as his own part of his conversation with the ancients. He expalins:
And because Dante says it does not produce knowledge when we hear but do not remember, I have noted everything in their conversation which has profited me, and have composed a little work On Princedoms, where I go as deeply as I can into considerations on this subject, debating what a princedom is, of what kinds they are, how they are gained, how they are kept, why they are lost.
As just one example, consider the conversation that has been going on about violence and crime in America throughout the nation's history. Our extensive "literature of violence" includes such works as De Tocquveille's Democracy in America, Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Glaskell's Trifles, Conrad's The Red Badge of Courage, Mark Twain's Huck Finn, Richard Wright's Black Boy, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Normal Mailer's The Executioner's Song. There is a similarly ample body of critical works on violence in American literature that includes such notable works as Richard Slotkin's Regeneration Through Violence. However, although we read and write as ways of taking part in an important conversation, authors and readers are not the only participants. Our "conversation" on violence and crime also includes such events as the burning of "witches" in Puritan Salem, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in the days before the Civil War, The Battle of Little Bighorn, the invention of the Colt pistol, the riots between anti-war demonstrators and the police at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, and the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It includes groups such as the Ku Klux Clan and the members of the Jutice Project, which uses DNA to overturn those who have been wrongfully convicted. Each time we are confronted with the grisly images of yet another school shooting, we draw upon this long conversation to make sense of the tragedy and make the latest event part of the ongoing conversation.
In his 1941 book on The Philosophy of Literary Form, Kenneth Burke used the following metaphor to describe how and why human beings acquire language.
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then put your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
One immediately grasps the essential truthfulness of this metaphor. Our own experience tells us that we use words in life to learn from others and to communicate what we have learned. Together, literature, history, and culture can be understood as parts of a conversation that helps us make sense of our world.
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