Why Read?

In school, I often got the sense that people in other fields didn’t think very highly of us English majors.  The sciences dealt with physical realities, and although the realities of the social sciences are not always strictly tangible, their results often are.  Literature, simply, “isn’t real.”  After all, isn’t the point of fiction that it’s all made up?

So, here I sit, jobless, with no real skills to offer.  I learned recently, though, that I still would not trade all the books rolling around in my head for any real skill.

I lost my grandmother two weeks ago.  In the way that perhaps some people would turn to the Bible for comfort, I turned to my books.  I reread Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and I flipped through Slaughterhouse Five until I found Billy Pilgrim’s headstone (“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt”).

One book in particular was in my thoughts.  I lost my other grandmother about two years ago.  I was abroad when it happened and wasn’t able to attend the wake or funeral.  For nearly a year, I wasn’t quite sure when it was ok to stop mourning.  The summer afterwards, I was at her favorite campground reading The Sandmanand came across Dream’s advice to Orpheus upon the loss of his wife: “You are mortal: it is the mortal way. You attend the funeral, you bid the dead farewell.  You grieve. Then you continue with your life.  And at times the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on.  She is dead.  You are alive.  So live.”  I think that was the moment I gave myself permission to move on.

Gaiman also wrote (this time in the mouth of John Dee):  “People think dreams aren’t real just because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes.”  These intangibles are the things stories are made of, and the things that life is made of.  You can’t measure love or loss or friendship and you may never understand them, but they are the real elements of which life is composed.

In a truly pragmatic sense, our world is made up of our experiences; we can live on no other basis.  And no, literature can never replace experience, but what it can do is reflect it and allow us to reflect upon it.  And then, like the martial artist who has meditated upon a koan or the football player who’s studied the tape, when our moment comes, we might be just a little better prepared to act — to live.

So, my English degree absolutely did not prepare me for the job market.  But maybe it prepared me to live.  And for that, I’m grateful.

Published in: on August 15, 2011 at 12:46 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Amazing writing!! (An unbiased opinion from your # 1 fan)

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