After the one guy with an unidentified hardback propped against his knees got swallowed up in the flood of rain-fleeing humanity entering the train this morning, I noticed something curious: an unusual number of people with old-fashioned reading material in their bags or purses– cheap paperbacks crushed in between laptops and absurdly tiny umbrellas, more cared-for volumes and long-read magazines neatly filed in multi-compartment attachés. The carriage was crowded; I had to hold my own book uncomfortably close to my face to read it. But in addition to wondering why so many people’s bags were gaping open, I also wanted to ask all these book-stashers, “If not now, when?” Maybe they were all lunch-break readers, or were only carrying around an extra paper-bearing pound or two as a last resort against boredom.
For a cause I’m unable to identify, that peek into so many people’s toted-along interior lives made me sad; for some unknown reason, the scene constituted something less than an active network of signals from one book lover to another that a compatriot was in his or her presence– something not quite on par with the literary version of a secret handshake. Maybe having possible dystopian scenarios much more in my mind of late, I’m also seeing closed, carried-not-read books as little flashes of samizdat-to-come. I can only hope if that situation does arise– if the groundswell we’ve seen of late of outrage at and purposeful self-quarantine from unfamiliar ideas and people does turn into active persecution of, say, those who openly welcome dialogue with and education about things and groups deemed officially unacceptable– that a solid network of resistance will also emerge. It could simply be because I’ve always loved books and the possibilities they offer that I also believe in their power to take us beyond, and connect us in order to overpower, countless forms of ugliness, and to teach us how to stand firm in the face of difficult and frightening situations. But my mind could also be swerving off into possibly overblown fearscapes at the sight of bagged books because frightening regimes’ first targets are so often words and the people who love the truths they contain.*
So when I urge people to read, usually, I’m really just expressing a hope that they’ll find a new source of enjoyment and meaning in their lives. I know that books won’t solve even half the problems on this planet, even if we read the good ones with open hearts. But whether histrionic or not, that faith in the written word also houses the kernel of a plea that extends beyond the strength and imagination the best of our literature can offer and encourage: take what you learn, and respect your teachers, yourself, and the strangers you’ve never even seen, enough to uphold those lessons in your actions. Don’t give in, and don’t hide the books.
* In the last few years, J.K. Rowling has provided incredible models both of courage vis-à-vis tyranny, and of how that tyranny works. Want to see some of the best delineation since Václav Havel of how ideology functions? Check out volume five in her Harry Potter series, The Order of the Phoenix, with Dolores Umbridge schooling us all in evil’s comfortable relationship with treacly cuteness. And for a reminder we all need to hear, there’s also The Goblet of Fire, with Dumbledore’s admonition that a time will likely “come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy” (differently phrased, I think, in the movie version). (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, New York: Scholastic Press, 2000: 724.)