The Power of the Word

The local section of The Washington Post recently ran a feature article on the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Library, which serves two of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the District of Columbia, Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights. In a building that is severely deteriorating (as are most of D.C.’s library facilities), everyday sparks of hope are generated, not even doused by the leaking roof: City kindergartners from a local school hear stories about autumn leaves and steam trains; a fifth-grader reads about space; a bakery deliveryman from El Salvador checks out the novel White Teeth by Zadie Smith for the English class he’s taking; another immigrant seeks The Iliad for his son.

Even the lurking shadow of the Patriot Act can’t change the fact that your local library may be one of the most radical institutions in town, at least when it comes to the potential that it holds to change lives and society. What else beside books can provide the tools to survive and succeed in a new land and make immigrants of all readers, transporting them to new frontiers of imagination, understanding, compassion, beauty, and truth? As I pondered the "deeper," spiritual implications of reading, this simple newspaper article planted my feet back on the ground, a reminder that books, like bread, can feed us on many levels at once.

Likewise, reading can be like baptism, in that sometimes it is only through immersion we can emerge to new being, new possibility, new vision. By losing ourselves in a story or following intricate ideas into a state of contemplation or illumination, we allow ourselves to be changed. The horizon opens up, the tiniest detail becomes visible, or someone who had seemed alien suddenly is recognized as family.

Some studies and cultural critics bemoan the loss of this capacity for deep reading in our society. Who could deny that distractions only seem to multiply, that every modern convenience seems matched with at least one modern complication? Just finding the space for a deep breath can seem like a challenge.

On the other hand, mere survival used to be quite a challenge, and in fact still is in many parts of the world. And yet people in all sorts of situations find a way to write and to read books, even risking imprisonment and exile to do so (while so many of us in the United States think cable TV is a major distraction).

Perhaps the pace and chaos of our lives is not the only reason some of us don’t read very much, or very intensively. It’s easy to "celebrate the book," but admit it - reading can, for all its joys, be a lot of work. Some of the best literature does not yield much fruit to the idle skimmer. The most profound biography or history may overflow with painful or enraging details that will haunt thoughts and dreams. A spiritual essay may cut more concisely into our souls than we want, or a novel may pull us into an intuition of love so overwhelming that we fear drowning.

In other words, reading passionately and with concentration isn’t about escaping reality, but about plunging further into it. Yes, it takes time. But the time is passing whether you read or not, so you might as well stake your claim on some of it. Going to the library or the book store can be an almost holy adventure, a sweet journey down quiet aisles - a prayer of sorts - that creates the possibility of finding empathy or ecstasy or enlightenment with the mere turn of a page.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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