Yesterday and into the early hours of this morning, Atlanta welcomed back Music Midtown after a five-year hiatus. This I knew not only because I read about it in the local weekly, but because a pretty loud pounding and drumming reverberation wafted over from Piedmont Park into the parking lot of Whole Foods while we were shopping there.
Can’t say I knew the band line-up, no matter how awesome, except the one Gwyneth Paltrow’s husband plays in (Cold Play), or so I think. Wasn’t ever much of a big venue, huge crowd, amps blasting kind of person, not even when my age matched the target demographics, so I wasn’t feeling especially left out or left behind. Not at all, as a matter of fact. Because just a few weeks back, Labor Day weekend, I had my very own mega festival experience, complete with limos, handlers, autograph seekers, and groupies. Only instead of hard rock stars, there were authors: novelists, poets, and memoirists.
And the fans were book seekers and book lovers and book worms, as some of us have been teased at times, standing in long lines in the hot sun and even the Sunday afternoon rain to see people who write and hear them read their own poems about the slave ship Armistad, or the first-person stories of a female prize fighter or a decorated Navy Seal.
It was the annual Decatur Book Festival, held over a couple of days in the town square and venues surrounding it, including a number of the neighboring church buildings. And there I was, living out one of my bucket-list fantasies, working for the second year as a site captain at the First Presbyterian Church, wearing my official staff t-shirt, carrying my very own two-way radio, assigned to the book signing tent, where it was my responsibility to keep the lines orderly and the authors cheerful as they scribbled their names and personal greetings on blank front pages.
Having to deal with the vocal disappointment of those who had to be told that their favorite writer had chosen to skip the official signing time, coming early and anonymously to pre-sign copies for the benefit only of the professional book collectors whose intentions were purely mercenary, or the mostly resigned indignation of the faithful, who watched others snag the maximum permissible five books as the piles evaporated and the clock ran out for meeting their favorite author, well known or cult. Let me tell you: it was a pastoral challenge.
I loved it anyway: the jammed, intense messiness of it; the intergenerational crowd, the young adults, the preschoolers, and their parents; the bad, fried carnival food; the booksellers booths, the publishers booths, the booth featuring members of our very own women’s writers group selling registration tickets to their upcoming regional workshop here. The sea of people. The stacks of actual books, hardcover and paperback.
If, as predicted, Music Midtown attracted around 50,000 rock-and-rollers (and lovers of beer), the Decatur book festival blow-out drew 70,000 book lovers, letting me know once again that books are not over, as has been the cry for almost as long as people have been writing them. And that the reading life is not just for the uncool, the misfit, the antisocial. Which is something many of us have been led to believe.
Bestselling novelist Anna Quindlen admits that she has always wandered through the world seduced through books, loving reading more than any other activity. In her literary memoir, How Reading Changed My Life, she writes that there was a club chair in her childhood home, a big one, with curled arms and a square ottoman, in which she was perennially sprawled, with her skinny, scabby legs slung over one of its arms.
“It’s a beautiful day,” her mother would tell her, as many of our mothers did, “all your friends are outside.” It was true, wasn’t it, for her, for some of us here, the sky was blue and cloudless. And so she was, as we were sometimes, coaxed away from those enticing books and the worlds inside them, coaxed into the streets, as she remembers, or down by the creek, or into the woods, lured by the trappings of a so-called normal childhood. When she would rather be inhabiting the parallel universe, as she calls it, of a book.
Put down that stupid book, she was told — because having your nose in a book, reading too much, suggested aimlessness, laziness, and the need to grow up and get on with her real life. People who read too much, whatever that means, are suspect, living lives that run counter to a society, she observes, that prizes above all else sociability, community, and adventure.
But for her, despite the nagging and the mocking, inevitably there was waking, she tells us, and sleeping, and in between, oh there was reading. Her real true world. Her perfect island.
And not the doggedly purposeful reading this culture has begrudgingly permitted its book lovers, the “careerism,” as Anna Quindlen calls it, that she says sanctions reading only if there is some point to it. Reading for a purpose. Instead of being delighted and mesmerized, being taught and improved. Even tested.
A while back, Quindlen told a reporter for the New York Times that she would be most content if her children grew up to be the kind of people who thought that decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves. Because her children grew up in a house in which virtually every room except for the bathrooms was lined with full shelves. Fully equipped for a reading life.
On the contrary, the house she grew up in, a lovely childhood in a lovely place, had a narrow smattering of books, mostly Reader’s Digest condensed books, unlike some of her friends, whose homes had very few, if any, books at all, except the requisite set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, bound in faux leather and little used. Most of her books and exposure to modern or classic literature came from the library, for her the library of the small private Catholic school she attended.
For author Pat Conroy, it was the public libraries frequented by, or rather haunted by, his mother, who looked to librarians as her magic carpet into a serious intellectual underpinning and the path to wisdom. Cherishing Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. Passing this love and this escape on to her children, whose “real” life was a brutalized one.
For me, in my childhood, there were the shelves of books and boxes of books that trailed us across the country several times, thick and hardcover, and mostly, I later discovered, the same kind of middle-brow Book of the Month Club selections of other families in the suburban neighborhoods we landed. Mixed in with the remains of the required college texts my parents were always intending to re-read for pleasure. The same yellowing, musty books that my father left behind when he went into assisted living, and then after he died, both the well worn and the never touched, that were dropped off at a library branch to be sold at the next fundraiser. Books I still wish I had the chance to go through, to finger, even to keep. Out of some sense that knowing more about the reader he was would teach me something more about the man he was.
Like so many others, it was the children’s library and later other libraries that actually nurtured my reading life, biking many blocks, and then the hours spent in the stacks, or in a quiet corner of the grounds, devouring Little House on the Prairie, or The Hobbit, or even the diaries of Anais Nin.
My husband was raised in one of those almost-bookless households that Anna Quindlen recalled from her growing-up years. Only two books, he says, were permanent fixtures, while any others, the one at a time his mother may have read, were quickly disposed of, given away. Despite this, he found his way to a reading life, as long as he remembers, loving to read novels, completely losing himself in another world away from the hot dusty Phoenix summers, surprised that so few of his elementary school classmates read in their spare time.
One of our congregants wrote me that she has loved reading all of her life, even though she too grew up in a home without books. She and her sisters walked over a mile to the library every week. She told me that as she grew older, she discovered that the librarian, Miss L’Ecuyer, was her self-appointed censor, horrified that at age 14 she brought East of Eden to the checkout desk. “Do your parents know you are reading this?” she asked. Grim-faced, she let the teenager borrow and read it, against her better judgment.
And another congregant shared that reading has been a big part of her life since she was six, moving at age 10 a short walk from the community library where, despite some troubles at home, she could indulge her addiction, her favorite book at the time being Of Human Bondage, which she read over and over.
We make our way to books however we can.
So why the reading life? Reading books, keeping books, loving books.
Here’s the practical piece.
A key to success, from the standpoint of what is sometimes called the birth to work pipeline, is reading at grade level in the third grade. Students lagging at this point are basically at much greater risk of veering off path in high school and dropping out. If this is indeed so, then Georgia is once again falling behind, with some recent testing sample indicating that 91 percent of third graders failed the reading portion.
A recent news column pointed out the latest “bad but unsurprising news” on education that reading and writing scores on the SAT have once again declined, the language competence of our high schoolers falling steeply in the 1970s and never recovering. This score, we are told, is a predictor of the ability to learn new things readily, to communicate with others, and to hold down a job, as well as being an indicator of future income.
And the reasons behind this, according to some analysis, are not changing student demographics or TV viewing, but simply not enough exposure to words. Words we are exposed to or not at an early age through being talked to or read to. The more the better.
Recently, in an otherwise dismal climate, book publishers got some good news. In one research study, disadvantaged students were given 12 books of their own choosing to take home at the end of a school year. Students who took the books home had significantly higher reading scores than students who didn’t, an effect just as positive as attending summer school.
This reinforces studies in 27 countries that kids who grow up in a home with 500 books stay in school longer and do better. Part of it is not just the act of reading. It is the practice of building a home library, because these students begin to see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.
The Great Books college program, as much as it needs reform in its over-emphasis on literature and other writings from exclusively Western Culture, has also proven that its purpose is not just to read the books. It also develops the critical thinking skills that serve its students over the entire course of their lives.Critical thinking skills that one new bumper sticker calls “The Other American Deficit.”
And then there is the risky reading, as University of Virginia professor Mark Edmunson maintains, that we do not do for information or for beautiful escape, but to remake ourselves.To engage in what he calls Life’s Great Second Chance, to be exposed to and to embrace another world with different values, like what happened to him as a white teenager reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and trying to see the low-key race war in his own high school from a black man’s point of view.
Despite assumptions about reading as a loner’s pastime, reading fiction in particular can make us more compassionate, with a study at York University in Toronto showing that fiction readers score higher on an empathy test than nonfiction readers, as they imagine themselves in stories then transferring that caring to real life.
Sometimes we read to heal ourselves spiritually, as did Nina Sankovitch, the mother of four children, who mourned the death of her beloved sister for three years, distracting herself during the day, sobbing every night, before committing herself to reading one book a day for a year. Typically reading 70 pages an hour, she would finish one in about four hours, still leaving time to do the laundry and carpool, and care for her sons and husband. This year of intense reading in an armchair of cat-clawed, faded purple brocade was a redemptive year of contemplation which, she says, helped her seek answers to how to live with sorrow and find her place in the world following such a loss. Finding in the process of reading and then reflecting on what she had read through a public diary, a newly-gained perspective and serenity.
A reading life as Unitarians:
It is probably no surprise that our Enlightenment-born and Boston-bred faith tradition has attracted and produced its share of admirable writers: to name a few — Longfellow, Melville, Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, and Bret Harte. More modern authors include Margaret Mitchell, who at least was married in our first UU congregation on Peachtree Street, and Kurt Vonnegut.
However impressive, more impressive is the role of our Unitarian congregations following the Civil War in what has been described as an aggressive missionary mood, helping not only to found new churches but new public libraries. They were interested, we are told, in informed thinking on all matters, religious and otherwise.
In 1862, when the American Unitarian Association sent the Rev. George Leonard Chaney to establish the first Unitarian congregation here in Atlanta, not only preaching to a congregation of ten but soliciting his community for money for books. This small band built the first free lending library, which deliberately included as its patrons women and people of color.
This example was so powerful that members living in Marietta began a public library there, also supported by Northern Unitarian congregations, and to which Oliver Wendell Holmes donated a full set of his published works. This is now the Cobb County Library.
Our reading life here at UUCA has continued to expand and flourish with the founding of our own Martha Griffith Memorial Library, currently in the process of being reorganized; our bookstore, our women’s book group, with their rich history of reading in the arena of race relations and social justice; our women’s writers group and their upcoming weekend workshop and anthology; our participation last year in the association’s national book read of The Death of Josseline and hopefully participating again this year; the first Sunday sermon series with its featured books; and the selected stories we share with our children and youth.
We celebrate the reading life we promote beyond our walls in our nearly 20-year partnership with John Hope and now Hope-Hill Elementary School in inner city Atlanta: tutoring, reading individually, and with after-school Reading and now a Writing and Storytelling clubs; funding their Reading is Fundamental book distribution program; and one of our newest initiatives, an Adult Literacy program with trained volunteers.
And coming up a couple of Saturdays from now for the first time, a pilot Mobile Library program, as part of the Healthy Congregations conference we are hosting here. The goal is to expose children to age-appropriate bilingual literature by setting up a cart full of books at the Plaza Fiesta on Buford Highway which children can either read on site, take home permanently, or exchange one of their own books for a new book. Look for more about this and the opportunities it promises.
We live in one of the most book-drenched communities in the country now, with the Georgia Center for the Book, readings at the Carter Center, open mics galore, intimate author dinner series, and major festivals, including the upcoming author star-studded Jewish Book Festival, advertised as a page-turner from beginning to end. We have only to find ways as individuals and as a congregation to help enrich this already fertile soil.
How shall we continue to affirm and promote the intellectual, moral, and spiritual centrality of a Reading Life as a way of sustaining democracy and supporting the inherent worth and dignity of every person?
What would it look like if one of our end statements — the gifts we hope to give the world — would be to give rise to lifelong readers whose convictions are challenged and whose imaginations are stirred and deepened, and to create those conditions leading to a reading life?
In the words of Henry David Thoreau:
A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.