Wednesday, October 20, 2010

`Sympathy & Gratitude'

A growing numbers of students, mostly girls, carry books to the playground. A few walk around reading, as in the closing scene of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. Most find a bench or dry spot against a wall and reenact the school recesses of my childhood. Even as a kid I disliked the tedium of sports and most games, and even more I disliked the patronizing assumption that every kid wants to chase a ball and scream.

An Asian girl sat on a wall by the playground equipment in what I recognized as a reader’s reverie. In her lap was a fat volume I knew from thirty paces – the fourth Harry Potter. My three sons have read them all, often more than once, and have watched the movies repeatedly. The fourth-grader was on her third pass through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I sensed her irritation at the interruption -- recess is short and returning to class gets in the way of the important thing, and here’s yet another distraction – but she was polite and articulate: “When I read them it’s like I’m really there. I forget about everything else.”

Every dedicated reader knows – or remembers – the sensation of self-forgetting triggered by a book. When the girl realized I knew something about books, if not Harry Potter, and that I was not condescending to her as grownups do, she asked: “Do you know how I can write a letter to J.K. Rowling? Does she have e-mail?Do you think she’ll write back?” I suggested she write care of Rowling’s publisher and showed her in the book where she could find the address. In a notebook entry from December 1804, Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes:

“It is often said, that Books are companions—they are so, dear, very dear Companions! But I often when I read a book that delights me on whole, feel a pang that the Author is not present—that I cannot object to him this & that—express my sympathy & gratitude for this part, & mention some fact that self-evidently oversets a second. Start a doubt about a third—or confirm & carry a fourth thought. At times I become restless: for my nature is very social.”

When the bell rang, the girl lingered a little longer over her book, resignedly replaced the bookmark and drifted to the lines of kids by the door. She held the fat volume against her chest, hugging it. It takes only a reader and a book to be “very social.”


Cynthia Haven said...

Thank you, Patrick! You have described my own childhood to a "T" -- huddled against the bitter Michigan winters, reading Les Miserables or Don Quixote, and resisting the teachers' attempts to heard me with the other kids, who "chased a ball and screamed."

You get to a point that reaches beyond the childhood loneliness -- to company and comfort with a book.

It's a solace you can take with you the rest of your life.

Maybe that's what Brodsky meant after all about the moral effects of literature (cf. -- it offers an independence of mind that's very hard to find anywhere else.

Cynthia Haven said...

And Fahrenheit 451? Most definitely.