(The following essay, a meditation on why I believe we/I read, was first published by the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard College in the 2011 issue of their annual publication, Writing from the Inside Out.)
Last night I traveled. Buoyed on the words of author Susan Rogers as she read from a recent essay, I swam from the hardwood paneled room with its ornate plaster ceiling on the campus of Bard College to the vast, watery plane of the Hudson River sliding past the college barely half a mile away. In an instant, I was floating beside Susan as she paddled south on the wide, rain-swollen river heading towards a New York Department of Environmental Conservation boat that had clearly caught something large. One of the men on board acknowledged her presence as she glided up to the boat, and floating to the back, she could see that what they had was a 6-foot Atlantic sturgeon hauled up from the river’s depths that they were tagging for study.
In itself, a scene like this is, perhaps, memorable. Most people will never be that close to an Atlantic sturgeon. However, Susan’s description of the fish made it unforgettable: “It is a dinosaur fish–it hasn’t changed in over 62 million years.” She continued, describing its blue-black belly, its flat gaping mouth for filtering “dynamic mud”, how when touched or struck gently on its body its solidity, like a piece of wood, surprised her. There on the river beside her, I saw this animal, belly up, mouth agape, all out of sorts. I know now, too, of it’s prized caviar, of the fishermen with names like stories who used to pull them out of the Hudson and sell them as “Albany Beef.”
But I learned something else that night, something beyond the fish, beyond myself.
Susan’s language, the rhythm of the sentences, the placement of this recollection immediately after she described the death of her mother, the way she reached out to touch the fish, gently, with a curiosity and compassion…all this made me realize why we read.
In his work I and Thou, Martin Buber presents his relational philosophy of dialogue. At its heart are two distinct modes of engaging with the world. The first, the I – it mode, is mere experience of an object of observation or utility (the “it”) by a subject (the “I”). This mode is clinical and scientific, detached and observant–think of a virologist watching a petri dish. But in the second, the I-you mode, both objects enter into a transformative relationship. The “I” engages the “you” as an entirety, the universe in and of itself. Jane Goddall’s game-changing relationships/studies with chimps are a good example. Buber classifies such a relationship through three elements, the third of which is the fact that “this one person [the I], without forfeiting anything of the felt reality of his activity, at the same time lives through the common event from the standpoint of the other” (Buber, Education, p.96 f., in Friedman). Buber calls this engagement an “encounter” and grants that such encounters can happen between the I and any object, person … fish.
This sturgeon, this ancient, alien fish hauled up through the spell of language, all glassy-eyed, mouth gulping air. . . it was real to me. Its solid, scaled, bony body, its position of helplessness… I was there, on that river, touching that sturgeon. But the room was not gone, my classmates seated around me remained, Susan’s voice was clear. I existed in two places at once.
What should I say? That I felt compassion for this fish? That I sensed its fear? That though a silent and strange species, I felt a connection? None of this gets to the totality I felt, to the way my mind reached out and the world rushed in, numinous, swirling around me as the Hudson swirled around this fish.
Why do we read? Because the ability of stories to transport the reader compels us. Because the incantatory power of language sings us out of our slumbers and into the circle. And perhaps, as for me, reading stories and encountering characters makes us better people, and holds a religious power over us. Maybe it is all these things at once. I read because an ancient fish connects me to the world. I read because authors preach a universal gospel in a church that requires no faith but what I have in mankind.
(This piece began as an essay for Indu Chugani’s Inquiry into Essay workshop in July of 2010 at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking. That week we read essays by Junot Diaz, Malcolm Gladwell, and a piece by Nam Le–All of which dealt with identity and how we perceive our selves. At midweek, Indu gave us a prompt to create a “mini-essay” that focused on a dialogue between the texts. I floundered through four hours of joyless writing that evening, pleased only, really, with the fact that I’d felt transported by a reading that evening by Susan Rogers. The next day following the advice of two of my peer-revision classmates, I jettisoned a full third of the paper (the section that was most like an “academic essay”) and instead focused on the experience of hearing Susan Rogers read. Their advice, as well as the advice of the editors of Bard’s “Writing from the Inside Out” periodical, where this piece was published, has helped me to let this piece be what it wants to be. And while it fails to address the original prompt Indu gave us, it succeeds in giving voice to something I’ve felt for a long time.
It wasn’t easy. I struggled with the third paragraph, trying to revise it, cajole it into getting it to do what I wanted, which was, essentially, to give the piece a semblance of “the essay,” as I had always known it…to meet the focus of the course as I saw it. I know that writing has a mind of its own, that it is often best to let the piece be what it wants to be. Truth be told, this piece always wanted to be about that night as simply one instance of many where I’ve felt the dark lenses drop away from my eyes and the world reveals itself. My demand that the piece stand up to some external standard made revision far more about me than about this piece, and thus I’ve learned something important. Of course, it also doesn’t seem much like the traditional essay I thought I’d write, and in that, I’m also surprised. It’s as though I went out fishing for trout at a river I’ve known all my life and instead hauled in a sturgeon. )