Last year, when the book discussion group that I moderate was participating in America’s Big Read program, I was referred to this essay written for the occasion by the Indian-American literary critic Parul Sehgal, an editor at The New York Times Book Review. I particularly like how she describes feeling accepted by books, even though she otherwise felt excluded because she was small, foreign and female.
I also like the way that she quotes W. E. B. Dubois, which makes me think of another black author who talks about his joy at finding that books, unlike his segregated Mississippi society, would accept him as he was growing up. In Black Boy (1945), Richard Wright recounts how he had to borrow a white friend’s library card and then pretend he was checking out books for this friend.
I love the sequence that Sehgal sets forth as she describes her childhood reading, “We read first for distraction then consolation then for company. And finally to be worthy of the company we kept.”
Breaking into my mother’s library was just the beginning. Books are all about trespass; they deliver what romantic love and citizenship only promise. They let you enter other consciousnesses, cultures, conversations. Would my sister and I have read the way we did if we hadn’t felt our difference so keenly, if our experience of smallness, femaleness, foreignness hadn’t been so painful? I’m not sure. The racism we encountered was imaginative and energetic. But the study smelled like vanilla. So much was explained and restored to us in that dim room. W.E.B. DuBois put it best: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas…I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”
No scorn, no condescension. We read first for distraction then consolation then for company. And finally to be worthy of the company we kept.
This urge to be worthy, which Wayne Booth also talks about in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, shows how it is that great literature can be a powerful moral force for good.
Note on the artist: Carolyn Edlund’s website is at www.carolynedlund.com/