Given what’s going on in the world, it can feel like a sin to curl up with a good book or a favorite song. The Gulf Coast lies in ruins, the war in Iraq is grinding on, and more people are sinking into poverty. Reading, like listening to a favorite CD, can feel like an extravagance—or worse, a way to avoid connecting to those in crisis, an act of separation from the suffering of others.
But we know that books and music can help us cope with the unpredictables of life, from the small irritations of traffic jams to the large-scale catastrophes of wind and water. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince may be the perfect antidote for a stressed-out 12-year-old living in an evacuee shelter—and her parents (assuming they can get a copy). There’s nothing wrong with hanging out for a time in the alternate worlds we find in stories. Indeed, it is often essential, a way to shore up the mind and soul while the outside world is raging.
Stories can save us. Think of the Bible, after all. Despite its confused characters and impractical plot, its central message is one of redemption. We bring our lives to this Word and in turn are given new life. In seeking to understand, we open ourselves to mystery; the result, wrote C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism, is “an enlargement of our being.” Through reading we learn “to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts....We demand windows.” The same could be said for music.
We seek others’ stories to live more broadly, love more deeply, to understand and be understood. Looking through the windows can save us from our narrow-mindedness, pettiness, and ignorance. In the process of being entertained, of pursuing pleasure, or of being comforted, our knowledge of ourselves and the world expands. The blues, for example, carries us down streams that have flowed for hundreds of years, the earliest of which voiced the misery and determination of African Americans coping with slavery. Now Hurricane Katrina’s reshaping of physical and emotional landscapes in the Gulf Coast—and the rest of the country—will produce new songs.
We know that the best stories, the ones that shimmer with authenticity, come from the ground up, from that place of deep honesty. That kind of work, writes Wendell Berry, reflects how well a storyteller knows his or her subject. The work of a writer, like that of a farmer, he says, is “particularizing”; you have to know your subject intimately to be able to speak about it exactly. Just as the success of Berry’s farming depends on knowing each dip and swell of his land, Berry’s essays and novels depend for their honesty on his deep mining of experience and imagination, the precise use of nouns and verbs to unearth sediment and old growth. Jazz saxophonist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker translated this into musical terms: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”
Tapping those groundwaters is what writers and musicians do. It’s also what we do as readers and listeners. When we encounter a story that feels familiar, that validates our experiences or articulates our fears, we’ve hit living water. Then what is often seen as a solitary act—holing up in a quiet room with a book or stuffing headphones into our ears—is really an act of community, an encounter with the Other. Those windows can be mirrors, but they can also be places where we meet one another.
Molly Marsh is associate editor of Sojourners.