Caring for Words, IX: Reading is Not Optional

James Baldwin, France, 1970

If we want a healthier language, we must read and read well. If we want to resist the clever lies of advertisers and politicians, we must read and read well. If we want to know that others have felt as we have, that we’re connected to people who lived before and elsewhere, we must read and read well. If we want to enlarge our imagination beyond the confines of individual experience, we must read and read well. If, in our increasingly rare “free” hours, we want to do more than “kill time” with cheaply made diversions, we must read and read well. If we want to reclaim our souls from those forever ready to sell us a number and a chain, we must read and read well. Reading is not optional.

“Ignorance of books and the lack of a critical consciousness of language were safe enough in primitive societies with coherent oral traditions. In our society, which exists in an atmosphere of prepared, public language — language that is either written or being read — illiteracy is both a personal and a public danger. Think how constantly the average American is surrounded by premeditated language, in newspapers and magazines, on signs and billboards, on TV and radio. He is forever being asked to buy or believe somebody else’s line of goods. The line of goods is being sold, moreover, by men who are trained to make him buy it or believe it, whether or not be needs it or understands it or knows its value or wants it. This sort of selling is an honored profession among us. Parents who grow hysterical at the thought that their son might not cut his hair are glad to have him taught, and later employed, to lie about the quality of an automobile or the ability of a candidate.

What is our defense against this sort of language — this language-as-weapon? There is only one. We must know a better language. We must speak, and teach our children to speak, a language precise and articulate and lively enough to tell the truth about the world as we know it. And to do this we must know something of the roots and resources of our language; we must know its literature. The only defense against the worst is a knowledge of the best. By their ignorance people enfranchise their exploiters.”

  • -Wendell Berry, “In Defense of Literacy”
  • “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people. An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else can tell, what it is like to be alive.”

  • -James Baldwin, quoted in “Doom and glory of knowing who you are”by Jane Howard, in LIFE magazine, May 24, 1963)
  • “But the problem with readers, the idea we’re given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, ‘I should sit here and I should be entertained.’ And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true.”

  • -Zadie Smith, Bookworm interview, KCRW, November 9, 2006