How Reading Works: A Lesson


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I’ve been reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera which has me thinking about how and what we forget. Or, to flip it, how or what we remember and why.

I just finished reading an eARC of Race & Place by David P. Leong. In his chapter on gentrification he wrote a sentence that stuck with me. “How would you feel if someone walked into your living room with an expression of disgust and assumed you’d be eager to have your home demolished?”

Then, I visited the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture for two particular exhibits that had caught my attention. The folk art by Nellie Ashford was one of them. While I considered each piece in the gallery a short video of an interview with her played in the background. The community of visual art that was shared in the gallery was one of playing, learning, and living. When I finished looking I sat for a minute to listen to the clip. Ms. Ashford discussed a couple of the memories that had found themselves expressed in her work. One was a canvas with white children on a bus headed in one direction to school and on the other side of a chain-linked fence were black children walking the other direction to school. Another piece was a memory of having a dead person brought into a home for viewing before burial. In her interview she mentioned how important it was to capture these pieces of community and history so that children would know about them. So they would remember. She brought forth the beauty of her stories without ignoring or trivializing the systems that made their presence atrocious.

All that jumbled in my head to produce the consideration of what if someone walked into your life with a look of disgust and said this was not a proper story or worth remembering or a good history and assumed you’d want it whitewashed and forgotten?

This thought alone is not particularly original, but combining it with an overall affirmation that history is, in fact, written by the victors, produces an appreciation all the more for stories and histories that recognize the dignity of other experiences and seeks to include them in the modern canon. Hoping to include the “history is written by the victors” quote, I went to the internet to search for proper attribution. I found, rather, that it is most often attributed to Winston Churchill but without any clear justification. That answer led to a recommendation of Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States.

Individually, these three parts of my life were interesting in their own right and in their own mediums, but taken together they grew my thoughts and helped me articulate in one more way why I understand reading to be critical to writing and living. They were interesting without needing to intersect in this way; they increased in value when they did; and they have potential to continue generating perspective and ideas if I am willing to feed them regularly.

And so my TBR pile has one more book on it, a museum visit to inspire my writing bumped into the thoughts of my reading for a personal ah-ha moment, and my commitment to reading books with a wide range of perspectives and authors and stories was affirmed. 

That is the way reading, at its best, works. Various components swirl in a mental rolodex, intentional efforts at exploring something new or different open space for the new to intersect with the swirl, and another idea comes out propelling the hostess onward.

This is why reading is critical to writing.

This is why reading is critical to new ideas, creativity, and progress. 

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