More people should visit Antarctica, metaphorically speaking, on their own. That is one of the conclusions I have reached, one of my recommendations: explore something, even if it’s just a bookshelf. Make a stab in the dark. Read off the beaten path. Your attention is precious. Be careful of other people trying to direct how you dispense it. Confront your own values. Decide what it is you are looking for and then look for it. Perform connoisseurship. We all need to create our own vocabulary of appreciation, or we are trapped by the vocabulary of others. Intensity, uniqueness, variety, specificity—these are qualities I value, but perhaps you will not. Size is important to me: capaciousness in a work of fiction, length in a career. What do you value? Why? Does reading have more merit than any other way of passing time? Is it useful to read randomly? alone? in discussion groups? bad books? old books? new? I wish that literary criticism could be built back up on the ground of experience, closer to book reviewing than academic theory, with a bias toward enthusiasm, with new Matthew Arnolds putting in their two cents about the best that was ever thought and said and new Nabokovs and Wilsons puncturing cant.
Every time you read a work of fiction, you are committing an acte gratuit, a gratuitous act that proves your freedom. Novels and stories, as Jane Smiley has pointed out, can only attract, never coerce. ‘To read fiction is to do something voluntary and free, to exercise choice over and over.’ Of course, some of us get the habit of reading in school, where reading is the reverse of free: it is assigned and required. So freedom has to be acquired or reacquired in later life. But instead of urging us to venture forth on our own, our consumer culture tries to persuade us always to sign up for guided tours, to do what someone else may profit from our doing. Only libraries promote random reading through their open stacks and that ultimately random system of organization, alphabetical order. Otherwise, in all realms, literary and literal, the guided tour prevails.
You cannot know at a book’s birth if it will become a classic. It will be a classic if it appeals to generation after generation of readers, and you would be able to know that only if you could hover in eternity and watch. Hovering over a work of fiction for merely a lifetime is the job of the literary critic, who is to a book reviewer as a pediatrician is to a midwife. The midwife is for a one-time event. The literary critic is for the life of the book. A book reviewer tells you, when a book first appears, whether he or she believes it is worth your time. The literary critic sees to your relationship with the book later. He or she tries to make sure that people continue to discuss a work as years go by. By talking about it over and over, through the years and centuries, we help to nudge it into eternal life. If we go on reading it, it is worthy to be read, proving itself to be not of an age, but for all time.
Prose is about what can be said and what is known and so on. Poetry is about what cannot be expressed. I mean, terrible grief, or intense erotic feeling, or even unspeakable anger are all inexpressible. You can’t put them in words and that’s why you try to put them in words. Because that’s all you’ve got.
I believe there is one fundamental dream that unites the dream of Jeremiah with the more famous dreams of Joseph before him and Daniel after him. And that is, the dream that God will yet bring his children out of exile, out of the place where their sin or the sin of others has placed them, and bring them to a true home, a home of friendship with God, with the knowledge of what it has taken to get there, and the deeper knowledge that, if it cost us something, it cost God so much more.
Sorrow walked in my clothes before I did. Flocks
of shadows followed me. One night I looked at the stars
I thought were gods until they disappeared. Some say
I smashed my father’s idols and walked away.
Or walked towards a desert of barren promises.
Or promises that are hummingbirds hovering for
a moment then drifting away. Even now, walking
towards that mountain, sometimes I will watch
my shadow sitting beneath a plane tree, casting dice,
ignoring my steps. Some of you made me a founder
but it was only that shadow. Some of you made me
your father, but it was yourselves you were describing.
You plant a tree, you dig a well, and it brings life,
that’s all. Everything else is the heart’s mirage.
Except what begins inside you. Except Sarah.
When she stepped inside my dream the curtains
shivered, whole mountains entered the room.
It always seemed a question of which love to honor.
The land I loved fills with fire. Who should we listen to?
It’s true, He offered the world and I offered only
myself. But I thought His words were coffins. I was
frantic for any scrap of shade. Now everything is
shade. Your old newspapers are taken up by the wind
like pairs of broken wings. Each window, each door is
a wound. One track erases another track. One bomb.
One rock, one rubber bullet. What can I tell you?
Where have you left your own morning of promises?
You remember Isaac, maybe Ishmael, but not the love
that led me there. Not Sarah. Just to hear the sound
of her eyelids opening, or her plants pushing the air
aside as they reach for the sun, twilight filling
her fingers like fruit. This afternoon a flock of doves
settled on my porch. Their silence took the shape
of all I ever wanted to say. Today, the miracle
you want aches inside the trees. Why believe
anything except what is unbelievable? I never
thought of it as a trial, not any of it. Now the leaves
turn into messages that are simply impossible to read.
The roots turn into roads as they break through
the surface. How can I even know what I mean?
Beneath the hem of night the rain falls asleep
on the grass. We have to turn into each other.
One heart inside the other’s heart. One love. One word.
Inside us, our shadows will walk into water,
the water will walk into the sky. Blind. Faithful.
Inside us the music turns into a flock of birds.
Theirs is a song whose promise we must believe
the way the moon believes the earth, the fire believes
the wood, that is, for no reason, for no reason at all.
Knowledge is changeable (as Adam and Eve found out), but truth is eternal. Therefore, any change in knowledge does not in the least threaten or affect truth.