(I need: therefore, I read…continue). This is a second part to a reflection on the significance that reading holds in our lives. As a young boy who absolutely loved Roman history, it is kinda fun having Latin words and Roman numerals for a title. Kinda. I have since grown in “reading” experience, and I do not carry the same happy enthusiasm for Roman history. Still love their Stoics, but the history itself was one of empire building, militia campaign, and oppression and cruelty to the outsider. That is a hefty price to pay for their more benign contributions in art and architecture.
My life-long reading has deepened my sensitivity to the suffering brought to others through power, no matter how well-packaged and appealing that power may appear. Reading, as a way to understand better one’s own and the lives of others, ought to call all of us to a bit more thoughtfulness and to a bit more ethical wherewithal. I will return to this wherewithal shortly.
Reading is a wide and deep word for me. Not just the text we read, or the phone texts we read, but reading as a skill to observe, synthesize, and relate meaningfully to the experiences and ideas that make up our lives. We read almost everything, from cereal boxes to a stormy sky above to the nighttime worry of a difficult incident of the day. When we read, we have taken it the important facts, feelings, and highlights of the day. Any and every day. A life-literacy as opposed to reading literacy per se.
Certainly, we are at College, so please read for your classes! Yea OCCC! Those of us not students know that homework never ends, and we know the more we read, the more we are prepared for whatever. Reading for classes or for the job is time consuming for sure. Already our days are too short with life demands. Meals, transportation, social media, jobs, unexpected problems, relationship maintenance, needed rest, living up to expectations! You know: life.
And then we ask you to study! But if reading is as I say it is, the intelligent, ethical relationship to life, then all the above, including study, are “texts” for reading: to sort out life and make it both practical and joyful. A greater calling than studying. A calling to know thyself. If we “read” to know life in all its manifests differences, then reading brings us to who we are and how we can better. Reading is not an assignment after all. Reading is how we best navigate life. We read well when we listen well, pay attention well to beauty and wisdom, and use our human reflection to live with authentic meaning. We read well when we feel the suffering of others.
Thus, back to the wherewithal of a thoughtful and ethical life as the skill of reading itself. First, a word on reading and friendship, the friends who come to our life because we read books. I have mentioned a few of my own in previous columns, like Herman Hesse, Dr. King, Anne Lamott, and Howard Zinn. Besides getting to rub elbows with cultural icons, I get to hear from other thoughtful humans who are sincere, wise, and even vulnerable. Gives me something to live up to.
I have made two new reading friends. Both show me that reading brings insight and empathy. George Yancy is a black philosopher who is teaching me the differences between a white life and a black life. As a white male embedded in a white social milieu (like a fish not knowing the water it swims in), this will be a long lesson for me. But it will be a thankful lesson. Reading George Yancy allows me the benefit and honor of knowing another human being’s insight and experiences. I love his book title that I am now reading, Across Black Spaces. He is helping me, “in love”, transverse a space I have not inhabited in its racial harms. Racial harms that come out of the very white water I swim in. I am changed because I have a new sensitivity, and therefore new awareness of my own ignorance, my absence of insight and empathy. Reading George Yancy is growing me into a better person. Reading is as reading does.
And a love of another sort, new words. George Yancy has taught me a word central for any of us to become better persons: “parrhesia”. How have I never known this word? So many of my friends whose books I read are paragons of the word: speaking candidly, with truth and courage, a boldness of free speech. Take that America. Our very heart and soul of who we are. More like who we could be if we were to better listen -to read- our writers of parrhesia. Yancy himself speaks from this spirit, even with the backlash of violent threats and bigoted insult in his life as a professional philosopher. Thank you for your friendship and courage, George Clancy.
One more new-made friend to share. (P.S. Reading books is a great source for NEW in one’s life!) She is Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, an historian. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.(And yea Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States! Funny how reading books even brings one into a larger, loving, world family). Listening to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s indigenous voice, different from my white, non-indigenous voice, I learn how obfuscated my understanding and empathy for Native American experience has been. Wow! I learn this and other things because she is willing to speak up and to share life-changing lessons through her work and care for her readers. Parrhesia. She is a Socratic friend. She shows me that I think I know when I do not. An example: she has taught me that America was not a wilderness when the pilgrims arrived (as we are taught in books.) Rather, it was a vibrant, interconnected world of commerce, husbandry, governance, and culture. It just was not a place where an idea like manifest destiny seemed sane. Thank you, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, for your courage to teach truth and for caring that others grow into better human beings.
Reading. To know the shadow of obfuscated truth and to know the sunlight of freedom from the chains of bigotry and ignorance. Finding such sunlight can only happen when we “read” life for self-growth and developing empathy. So many differences to journey across! But such crossings are joyful as we reach out of our own darkness into the light of a caring life with others. Happy life-reading, friends.
Professor George Yancy Morrow