Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Reading and Solitude: An Essay

(Self-portrait by John Bratby)

“People who don’t read,” writes Sven Birkerts, “sacrifice an inner sense of what life is all about. Interior brooding, pondering for its own sake is lost.” Attempting to discover the reasons for a lifelong need for solitude, I seem to have located its roots in my earliest experiences of reading. Though I wonder which came first, my need for solitude or my desire to be left alone to read? Chances are I was a retiring child before I learned to read. I remember times on the beach when I would slip away by myself to pretend that I was making arrowheads from slivers of stone I scavenged at the water’s edge. I loved to imagine myself living in remote times and places, surviving as an “Indian” or a “Cave Man.” I doubt that I could have managed those fantasies without having read about Indians or Neolithic cultures, or at least having been read to about them. Equally, it might have been my natural propensity for solitude that was given context by the very act of aloneness required for reading.

In “Perchance to Dream,” an essay about the tenuous survival of reading and writing in an age of images, Jonathan Franzen describes “the social isolate…the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him.” What such a child does, Franzen suggests, is “to take that sense of being different into an imaginary world.” Since that world is imaginary it can’t, by definition, be shared with others. “So the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read. Though they aren’t present, they become your community.”

Franzen goes on to quote from Shirley Brice Heath, who teaches English and linguistics at Stanford and has done research on why, in an age of waning literacy, some Americans still love to read. Heath, he says, has discovered that “readers of the social-isolate variety are much more likely to become writers,” especially if “writing was the medium of communication within the community of childhood.” In fact, Heath has discovered that “it makes sense that when writers grow up they continue to find writing vital to their sense of connectedness.” And she concludes that what’s perceived as the “anti-social nature of ‘substantive authors’” is derived “in large part from the social isolation that’s necessary for inhabiting an imaginary world.”

I would argue that deeper than the need for solitude of the childhood reader and burgeoning writer lies an innate sense of alienation. Often this alienation expresses itself both as a feeling of being different from those around us and a need to be separate from other people—indeed, a sense of pleasure taken in that very separateness. Reading enhances that feeling, for when we begin to read we enter a space that cannot be shared with anyone else. We enter into profound dialogue with the author of the book we are reading or the characters that have been created, if it is fiction. Furthermore, we require physical separation for the act of reading—the bedroom or backyard, the sun porch or hammock under the shade of a tree in summer. There are stories of prodigious readers like D. H. Lawrence, the condition of whose households made it impossible to get away from family or to have a room of one’s own for reading or study. In those cases, the reader learns to concentrate on the text even in the midst of the family’s activities. (After his marriage to Frieda, it is said that Lawrence often wrote in the kitchen while dinner was being cooked.)

My earliest memories of reading are also memories of solitude. Even today when I’m reading I prefer to be left alone. In childhood, reading was the most satisfying experience of my life and it remains so. I still wonder if the discovery of reading enabled me to escape from what I perceived to be an alien world around me or if I escaped in order to read. It could have been a combination of both, or I may have sought to reproduce the experience of having been read to at bed time by my mother. Every night without fail she would read to my brother and me from Thornton Burgess or the Babar books. I have never forgotten the comforting feeling of lying in bed while being transported to the American forests where Grandmother Owl and her brood lived or the jungle in Africa where Babar had his kingdom. How alive those characters seemed, how real the places they inhabited! Later, when I could read on my own, beginning with books like The Wizard Of Oz, which my Aunt Helene helped me to borrow with my first library card, I discovered that I could recreate at will that original bedtime experience of being read to. I could read morning, noon and night, if I wanted to; and I often did. I simply seceded from the family.

This is not to suggest that my family was an abusive one; nor was the atmosphere of growing up particularly oppressive. My brother and I were urged to read. We were given piano lessons, which led to a lifetime of pleasure in music. Our family attended concerts and we went to the theater. My mother may have insisted that we dress to please her and she was strict about keeping ourselves spotless, which, I think, is hard for children to deal with especially if you are out digging in the dirt, which was our habit in those early years, creating tunnels in our sand box and highways in the narrow yards between the one and two-family houses in our neighborhood. For our transgressions we were sometimes disciplined, but not excessively; though, perhaps, we were managed a bit too strictly, having been put out in our yard like dogs on a rope when we were quite young, a practice that seemed common in our community. With my father at work all day, my mother was left alone with us. I can understand her need to exert a certain control over our movements. At the same time, we lived as part of a large extended family, spread out around the neighborhood. Often I was surrounded by my grandmother and a number of aunts. We spent a great deal of time next door at my grandparents’ house. It was a boisterous, sometimes chaotic atmosphere we grew up in, the sound of Greek all around us, the smell of our traditional food, the bustle of holiday preparations, the noise of voices raised uninhibitedly in discussion or argument. I suspect I may have wanted to withdraw from that often stifling attention, that noise; I may even have needed to for my own peace of mind.

It was also war time, when I began to grow up in the early 1940s. Only recently have I begun to understand the extent of the fear and anxiety under which we lived, especially the children. Air-raid wardens roamed the neighborhood at night, reminding parents to keep their regulation black shades down because the light from our front windows could be observed from the ocean. This was a real concern because German submarines had been sighted off Gloucester. Our families also felt the privations of war. Gas and meat were rationed; we stockpiled canned goods in our basement for “emergencies.” In school we were indoctrinated in patriotism while being importuned to purchase savings stamps to help pay for the war effort.

While there was a certain atmosphere of excitement in which we lived, there was also a sense of incomprehension. At some level we understood that Americans were in Europe and the Pacific to fight an enemy we only knew from the most caricatured of images—jack-booted Germans festooned with swastikas and “Japs” with yellow complexions and slanty eyes. Just why these oddly dressed and strangely endowed people were our enemies was hard to fathom. It was only when we became old enough to go to the matinees at the local movie theater that we could absorb some narrative that helped explain what was going on in the world, naturally in Allied or, more precisely, American terms.

But incomprehension made us anxious, just as the fear that we, like the British, might be bombed entered our dreams. To this day, I have recurring nightmares whose images of aggression—objects falling on me out of the sky, figures pursuing me in the dark—can only have their provenance in wartime childhood fears. Along with war came the pressures an immigrant family experienced in a new world engaged in a war against the very places our parents had come from. Neither will I discount the intimidation we were subjected to in the neighborhood, in school or on the street. What was more subtle, however, were the expectations placed upon us by our own families in reaction to the xenophobic attitudes around us. It was expected that we do well in school, that we behave ourselves at all times, and that we never bring dishonor upon the family.

These expectations had to be fulfilled in a generally hostile neighborhood, among kids who called us “Greasy Greeks” and made fun of our names, our language, our food and our traditions, to the extent that my brother and I refused to speak Greek, to go to the Greek Orthodox Church, or to appear in any way different from the other kids. Yet we were profoundly different, not only in our origins but in the way we experienced ourselves. How could we feel otherwise when we spoke another tongue and our food smelled different from that of our next door neighbors?

That was one source of the alienation I grew up feeling; and I think it was a real one. I also experienced alienation on another level and this manifested itself in my interests as a child and the way I existed in the world. For one thing, I shunned sports or competitive activity of any kind. Lacking the necessary skills and physical coordination, I avoided athletics, withdrawing from those who engaged in them because they usually made fun of my awkwardness. This was difficult to achieve in the kind of sports-minded community I grew up in; and my actions only distanced me further from my schoolmates, who called me “stuck up” because I wouldn’t play ball with them, little knowing that I was terrified of failure, of looking bad in front of them or my teachers. (If only someone had stepped in then to help me overcome my awkwardness, my reticence to put myself out there in games, it might have saved me a lot of subsequent pain. Had some coach in school or college offered me an alternative to violent engagement like long-distance running, which I think I would have been very good at, I might have become a much less self-conscious person, indeed a far less diffident one. I certainly would have felt more competent.)

Generally I preferred to be alone, to play by myself, to roam the fields around my house in search of butterflies, to sit for hours in the summer grass smelling the earth and the trees, observing the activities of the birds around me and studying the differences between the weeds and wildflowers I discovered. To me this activity was more important than anything else. It remains one of my chief pleasures today when I will walk for hours, alone and perfectly happy, by the ocean or in the woods, listening to the rasping call of a catbird resonate in the silence or watching the cormorants dive below the surface of the water.

But all this is background to what I really want to say. For my entire life I have felt different from other people, as if they spoke a language or obeyed a code of conduct I didn’t understand. Consequently, I’ve always felt excluded. I didn’t fit into the neighborhood. I was shunned by my classmates for doing well in school, ridiculed when I tried to play sports. I couldn’t relate to organized religion; and I never felt fully at home in the small, liberal arts college I attended in Maine, whose students came mostly from private schools. I’ve had friends all my life, and I’ve cherished intimate relationships. But at some level I’ve still felt alienated. I’ve felt that most people’s activities and aims were not mine, either in terms of work or career or in the most basic philosophy of life. I’ve not particularly been a loner, nor have I ever become a recluse or a hermit. I’ve always lived and worked among people, often with pleasure; but I have never felt totally a part of their world, or what I perceived as being that world.

When I was younger I acted out my feelings, indulging in a certain amount of antisocial behavior. Influenced by Beat Generation rebelliousness, I grew my hair out and wore a beard at a time when few men had long hair or beards. I drank more than I should have and I experimented with narcotics. As an adult I found myself drawn to outsiders, to avant-garde artists and intellectuals in Europe, to Native American radicals. I lived and worked on Indian Reservations in Maine and New Mexico, feeling as comfortable among their traditional people as I had among peasants in Tuscany. I didn’t try to emulate those on the margins of society, but I felt a great kinship with them. I took up their causes, which led me eventually into antipoverty work. For thirty years I acted as an advocate for poor people. Until recently I taught English part-time at a community college whose students were mostly blue-collar workers and women on public assistance preparing themselves for careers. I loved working with older learners. I never condescended to them or felt superior to them in any way; and they, in turn, always treated me with openness. In fact, the helping relationships I’m describing have felt more democratic to me than anything I experienced during my years in an elite college or in graduate school. Yet I wasn’t driven into teaching or social work by a sense of mission. Indeed, it might be said that I have sublimated my alienation in my vocation; for when I’m engaged in these relationships I feel more myself, more a part of the human community than under any other conditions or circumstances.

I suppose it could be said that I have discovered a way out of or beyond alienation, a personal solution to my anguish at not belonging. But this does not make living in America any less of an alienating experience. When I was younger I didn’t quite know why I felt the way I did; today I can articulate to some degree both the sources and the meaning of my alienation. Even though I can say that I’m put off by a consumer culture, which values material over human life, stressing personal gain instead of the common good, or that I find reprehensible a system which claims to be a political democracy but in reality doesn’t offer economic equality, it still doesn’t help me feel any better as an individual. So quite against my will, and in opposition to my deepest need to be alone, I have been forced to enter the arena of civic life. I have been compelled to write about and to argue issues in public, to sit on committees, to take political action. I involved myself in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. I joined others in opposing the war in Southeast Asia and, more recently, America’s intervention in the Persian Gulf, in Iraq and Afghanistan. In my hometown, I have fought shopping mall and condominium development, which would undermine the city’s character, and I’ve helped to preserve the still wild interior of Cape Ann. In a word, I’ve become a citizen, although I’ve often hated what that has made of me—a debater, even something of a scrapper, an in-fighter against my better judgment.

For this reason I value my isolation even more, my aloneness, though they now seem harder to achieve. So I walk a line between the public and the private. I’m driven by circumstance and conscience to participate in community life. But the act of participation makes me desperate to return to my privacy. It is a compromise I’ve struck, and like most compromises, it’s an uneasy one. Still, it leaves me free to enjoy enough of the solitude I’ve come to prize as the very core of my existence and to do the reading and writing which that solitude makes possible.

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