Wednesday, February 25, 2009

`Books Will Find Their Readers'

A reader responded to Tuesday’s post by passing along lines from the address Joseph Brodsky made in 1991 to the Library of Congress:

“Books will find their readers. And if they will not sell, well, let them lie around, absorb dust, rot, and disintegrate. There is always going to be a child who will fish a book out of the garbage heap. I was such a child, for what it’s worth.”

This sounds not like the phony rah-rah of a Poet Laureate but hard-won wisdom from a former citizen of the Soviet Union, hope of the most believable sort. How is it we find the books we need, and do we always know we need them before we find them? In the land of abundance and the First Amendment, where most of us can read any book we wish, it’s easy to forget or cynically dismiss the potential power of a book. Testimony is overwhelming that even a single poem can change a life for the better or worse.

The Ingersoll Foundation’s T. S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing went to Zbigniew Herbert in 1995, three years before his death. Herbert was ill and unable to accept the award in person but a friend delivered his acceptance speech, “Invisible but Present.” In it, Herbert chronicles his encounters with Eliot’s work, starting with his teenage discovery of an early poem, “La Figlia che Piange,” on a page torn from an anthology:

“The first encounter did not take place in the silence of a library but in the midst of a raging war, with barbarism let loose. At that time, universities, libraries, museums seemed to belong to the world of mythology and fantasy rather than to everyday reality….It would be difficult to imagine a greater contrast: the world of chaos and fury that surrounded me, and this poem in a soft and elegiac key, so abounding in delicacy and tenderness.”

Another Polish survivor of the Nazis and Communists was the poet Aleksander Wat. In My Century he recalls reading the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, St. Augustine and other church fathers in a Moscow prison:

“…the books I read in Lubyanka made for one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not because they allowed me an escape but because, to a certain extent, they transformed me, influenced and shaped me greatly. It was the way I read those books; I came at them from a completely new angle. And from then on I had a completely new understanding, not only of literature, but of everything.”

If only we, with our effortless access to torrents of print, could read even one book in the spirit of Wat’s “completely new understanding.” On Tuesday, in a much humbler though comparably pained and solitary situation, I witnessed a book’s restorative powers. I spent the day with a severely autistic third-grader. I’d been warned he bit, scratched and kicked. A woman in the office told me first thing in the morning: “You’re in for a long day.”

He spat and head-butted a couple of times but attrition was his weapon of choice. Repetitive shouting, jumping, pacing, rocking, rolling on the floor and spinning on his chair wore me down. I never lost my temper or said anything I regret but I was exhausted before lunch. A teacher suggested I give him a book -- such a novel suggestion in a school – and he picked a tie-in to the animated film Finding Nemo from a pile of what I took to be refuse in the corner of a classroom. Privately, I snorted – crass commercialism, that sort of thing – but the book tamed him, held him for hours. As Brodsky said:

“There is always going to be a child who will fish a book out of the garbage heap.”


Anonymous said...

alright Patrick,

Im new to this blog but reading it, im very glad that i have found it.
I think thats a nice quote with the kid fishing for a book from the garbage heap. Its true isnt it. I mean it may not literally be from a bin, but someone can find a book that they need without knowing about the book.

Im gonna give an example of such a book in my life and just wondering what you thought of it. Its perfect for this blog i think:
Michael De Montaigne - The Essays.

They are brilliant and illustrates life perfectly.


Anonymous said...

The trick with autistic people is to out-autist them: you should have started slapping yourself, moaning, saying odd things at twice normal speed, and card counting, it's the only way to maintain the upper hand.