Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Words Matter: Reading


“We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.”
A. J. Fikry to Maya in The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin



Lady Mary Montagu shared her advice with her daughter in letters, as was expected of her. She was a lady of title and some acclaim in the eighteenth century. She had brought back news of a smallpox vaccine after visiting Turkey and has been credited with advancing the defeat of that disease.

Montagu advocated teaching girls to read, a minority opinion in her time. She believed that knowledge is a solid foundation for a moral life. She also believed that girls without beauty needed reading skills so that they could occupy themselves quietly and meaningfully while they lived at the mercy of any relative who might given them shelter.

Unattractive girls were not expected to land a husband--unless, of course, she could bring great wealth to the marriage, and thus, she would have to depend upon the kindness of a relative for home and security. Montagu’s granddaughter had neither great wealth nor beauty so Lady Montagu advised her daughter to teach her child to read as a blanket protecting her from chilly loneliness, a balm against sorrow.

Gabrielle Zevin, through her titular character, A. J. Fikry, also believes in the benefits of reading. In The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, reading transforms several lives. A. J. Fikry is less alone because he reads. A book even prolongs his life. The Police Chief becomes a friend because of books and evolves into an avid reader because of that friendship. Love appears a second time in Fikry’s life because of books, and an orphaned toddler grows rich in thought and understanding because she lives surrounded by books and readers.

That little girl becomes a writer, affirming what Stephen King and a long parade of writers have said through the ages: writers read. From reading, they acquire knowledge. From reading, they acquire words. From reading, they acquire community while laboring alone with blank pages and ideas glimpsed. From reading, they acquire a life that, with a bit of luck, extends far beyond their own.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin and/or Lady Mary Montagu’s advice to her daughter. Zevin’s book is also rich in references to other works, especially short stories. Make a list and read them all.

Writing Challenge:

Characters in Zevin’s book believe that asking people what they read or last read reveals something about their natures. It also helps people separate acquaintances from friends and a coffee date from a potential life partner.

What are your top three reads? Don’t agonize over the choices. List quickly what comes to mind first, second, and third.

For me--and I surprised myself because it’s so hard to choose--they are:
  • Anything by Kate Atkinson
  • J. D. Salinger’s short story, “For Esmé--With Love and Squalor”
  • George Orwell’s novel, Coming Up for Air
  • Carol Shields’ novel Unless