I Saw the Light

I’m told I learned to read at three-and-a-half while sitting on my grandfather’s lap while he read the comics to me. I obviously don’t have any memories of that, but, like most of us, neither do I have any memories of not being able to read. Unlike many (most?) of us, however, I don’t have any memories of not wanting to read.

As an elementary child, I lived less than a mile away from a library. The library had a ten book at a time limit, which I discovered by trying to exceed it. I read just about anything I could lay my hands on; kid-sized biographies of two babes (Ruth and Didrikson) and countless others, all of the Nancy Drew’s that existed at the time (forget the Hardy Boys, I was far more interested in the 18-year old female detective), the random book on fractions,1 and book after book after book after book on World War II. (The library limit was only three on non-fiction books, a fact I discovered the same way I discovered the overall limit.)

Reading was the gateway to another world. I didn’t dislike mine, I just enjoyed getting to know all of the other ones. I hated being interrupted while I was mid-book (as my parents will both attest); it was literally jarring to my senses. The summer after seventh grade, we drove to Colorado for vacation, and my dad tried to get me to put down my book to look out the windows at all the glorious mountains there were to be seen. (We had lived in the Fort Worth area my whole life; for me, a mountain was an especially big anthill in the backyard.) He tried in vain, and he got a little redder with each attempt; how could I possibly be more interested in words on a page than NATURE?!?2

“Raindrops on roses” and “wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings,” were a couple of the examples Julie Andrews used as she sang to her charges about her favorite things. Most of mine involve words.

Rick Bragg’s description in his memoir, All Over but the Shoutin’, of going to the funeral home to see grandmother’s body.

I bet even God, unless He is an Episcopalian, likes a little fais-do-do every now and then, and I like to think of her Up There, blowing a hurricane on her harmonica and singing a little too loud.

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as she wonders at how a rival has fallen short in her attentions to Mr. Rochester.

Because, when she failed, I saw how she might have succeeeded. Arrows that continually glanced off from Mr. Rochester’s breast and fell harmless at his feet, might, I knew, if shot by a surer hand, have quivered keen in his proud heart—have called love into his stern eye, and softness into his sardonic face; or, better still, without weapons a silent conquest might have been won.

All 3000 pages of Shelby Foote’s trilogy, a non-fiction account of the Civil War; a narrative, as the subtitle tells us, stories of a horrific time told in such a lyrical manner that you can almost hear “Dixie” or “Battle Hymn of the Republic” coming out from between the letters as you drag your fingers across the pages.

Jean Valjean’s internal struggle with whether to rescue a prisoner falsely accused of being him (Valjean) and in the process find himself returned to prison, in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

But this much he felt, that by whichever resolve he might abide, necessarily, and without possibility of escape, something of himself would surely die; that he was entering into a sepulchre on the right hand, as well as on the left; that he was suffering a death-agony, the death-agony of his happiness, or the death-agony of his virtue.

Isaiah 58’s words of encouragement to a nation at perhaps its lowest point, a nation with self-inflicted wounds that was rotten and rotting, from its core all the way to its edges.

You will raise up the age-old foundations; and you will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets in which to dwell.

Jon Krakauer’s description of reaching the top of Everest in Into Thin Air, a book so visceral in its description of the climb that it will give you vertigo and make your lungs hurt.

At 29,028 feet up in the troposphere, so little oxygen was reaching my brain that my mental capacity was that of a slow child.

Any paragraph at all in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, whose very title cuts like a scalpel.

Tolkein depicting a moment in a victory party in Lord of the Rings that tells us the same thing Inside Out reminded us of sixty years later, that sorrow and joy often flow mingled down.

And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold… and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

The first paragraph of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, a book about the opening days of WWI, perhaps the last place you would expect to find such clarity and beauty.

The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

Blinded By the Light

This week I have added another book to the above collection. As usual, I am a bit late to the party; the the book was published two years ago this month, and last year won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I was finally prompted to put it on my (now online) library wait list by, of all things, a sportswriter’s tweet.

Did I mention I love reading about WWII? Did I mention I love words and how great writers use them? All the Light We Cannot See is the perfect intersection of the two, a spectacular novel of the seen and unseen and deeply felt, and perhaps the most beautiful book I’ve ever read.

But he watches his sister’s face, motionless except for her eyelids, and in the kitchen Frau Elena holds her flour-whitened hands in the air and cocks her head, studying Werner, and two older boys rush in and stop, sensing some change in the air, and the little radio with its four terminals and trailing aerial sits motionless on the floor between them all like a miracle.

The book is about a blind girl and a boy, but not in the way that you think, and treasure and a war and how they all move inexorably toward a collision that you’re not certain is going to happen until two thirds of the way through. It is told in small two or three page chapters, alternating between the boy and the girl in a way that act like bicycle pedals, propelling you forward faster and faster until soon you want to coast for a few minutes and just luxuriate in all that you’ve read so far.

Color—that’s another thing people don’t expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel. Its scientists are lilac and lemon yellow and fox brown. Piano charts loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich blacks and complicated blues down the hall toward the key pound. Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver; pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden. The huge cypress trees she and her father pass on their morning walk are shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a paragon of light.

Writing like that makes me want to stop reading. When you read something this exquisite, then everything else begins to look like the latest Dan Brown, hackish and horrible and a waste of several hours. Just like time with a Renoir or Cézanne can perhaps spoil one to what’s available at the local starving artists sale, so time with a great book can spoil one to the mountain of mediocre ones.

Writing like that makes me want to read more. It reminds me of the power of words, of the sheer beauty that can be formed by only twenty-six letters arranged in a seemingly infinite number of ways, of the inspiration that can be drawn from something as seemingly mundane as a sentence. We have all been instructed to read the classics, but many of them are not all that readable (Frankenstein) or even good (Moby Dick). People like Bragg and Foote and Doerr remind us that not all of the great writing has been written, that there is still wonder to be found in the pages, physical or virtual, of a book.

Writing like that makes me want to stop writing. In this day everyone fancies themselves a writer, and have the blogs (ahem) to prove it. But while the volume of writing has increased at an exponential pace, the volume of good writing hasn’t. Great might have been 1% of the total output a few years ago, but today it might be .001%. Do I really need to drag down the percentage?

Writing like that makes me want to write more. I’ve had this post forming in my head since I was ten pages into the book. There’s nothing I can say that will add anything to the book, but seeing someone else do something well can inspire us to be better. Or at least try to be better.

Occasionally I run across someone who says they only read non-fiction, and there is always a sense of superiority in their tone when they say it, as if fiction is beneath them and unworthy of their attention. I’ve never understood that; all fiction is birthed in fact, and often tells a story with the freedom that facts would never allow. The Grapes of Wrath was not weakened by the fact that it was not a biography, because it was truer than any biography could have been. I have read literally dozens of non-fiction books on WWII, but few if any conveyed the impact of what happened as clearly as Sophie’s Choice.

All the Light We Cannot See paints indelible pictures on our souls, and reminds us why we read.

Across the room is a miniature girl, skinny, quick-witted, an open book in her lap; inside her chest pulses something huge, something full of longing, something unafraid.

  1. I have no idea — doesn’t every ten-year old want to read about math?

  2. There are two ironies here; one, my dad was and is a voracious reader himself, and two, I now pretend to be a photographer and would drop a book in a second to see and take pictures of mountains.

One thought on “I Saw the Light

  1. I love the bicycle pedals analogy. It made me laugh and then I became very curious about the book….curious enough to read it! That is…after I’m done reading all these non-fiction books surrounding me!

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