Tuesday, January 6, 2009

One Man, Reading*



It is time to disturb the universe. It is time to do something subversive. Yes, it is time to try to reignite the intellectual fire in this country.

I want to see people, in public, reading.

Reading scripts at the local Starbucks does not count. Here in Los Angeles, everybody reads scripts in public. It is how one telegraphs to everyone else that he or she is an actor or screenwriter. Poseurs and frauds, frauds and poseurs! One must be reading a book—serious literature only.

And preferably, cover up the front cover, because that is another trick: we read War and Peace in the doctor’s office in the hopes that someone will be impressed.

No, what we need is a real intellectual life, not to impress others, not to pick up on beautiful people, not to make others think we are intelligent—we need to read in public because it is important to us, because it is necessary to the mind life of America.

I propose that we take the year 2009 and read. Not just read, but publicly read. I want to walk around this great nation and see readers everywhere. I want to see people so engrossed in text that they miss their names when they are called, they have thick books open in their shopping carts at the local market. I want to see the break rooms filled with people reading. If one no longer has a job, this allows even more time for public reading. Off to the library with the unemployed!

I want to see people reading at church on Sunday. People in parks, people at museums, people at sporting events—everybody, take out your books and start. No one should be watching the in-flight movie. Turn the damn thing off and throw it out the window. We are reading and cannot be bothered.

Hopefully, this will start a cascade effect.

People will want to discuss what they have read. I do not mean the kind of nonsense Oprah discusses on her inane show with alleged writers. (How is it that dear Oprah keeps getting duped by liars?) People should discuss things, as the kids say, for “reals.” Is the novel still valid as an art form? What are the stories we tell ourselves in order to live? Where are the poets? Why don’t we listen to them? What does the Invisible Man mean here in 2009? Are we still living lives of quiet desperation? Is Ahab us, and if so, who or what is our white whale?

Let’s sail away with Horatio Hornblower. I can see it now: Huck, Jim, and all of us on a raft heading down the Big Muddy, looking for adventure. While all is quiet on the western front, let’s discuss the things we carry in war and in our lives. I want to sit up late with Hamlet and try to figure out why we are here. Can we fall in love again, like Romeo and Juliet?

I want to sit around the campfire with Jack London, and the drawing room with Edith Wharton. I want to ride through Wyoming with E. Annie Proulx and Gretel Ehrlich. I want to fly over the dark continent with Antoine De Saint-Exupery, discuss into the wee hours of the morning the meaning of life with Thomas Merton, Aldous Huxley, and dear Spinoza, only I would call him Barry.

Book stores will have to stay open later to accommodate the demand. There will be more than enough business for the chains to open more stores, and all the independents will come back again.

Libraries will become a federal institution and rival their university counterparts. The federal government will cut funding for war and the military, and channel the funds to our new national library system. America will become the biggest consumer of books. Newspapers will multiply, magazines will prosper, Paris Hilton will be seen at one of the new hot reading clubs in Hollywood pouring over a copy of Death Comes For The Archbishop.

Okay, I’ll stop now.

Let’s just begin with reading in public. If we can get just one man reading in public, thinking, reveling in ideas, we could start a revolution.

Get out in the town square, lounge on Main Street, take to public transportation, open the book. Let the journey to the brave, new world begin.

*Update: On the Los Angeles Times blog on books called Jacket Copy, writer Sarah Weinman discusses how she read 462 books in 2008. Yes, that is 462 books in one year! We should all be so diligent.