The Reasons We Read

Like everyone else in the book world, I was saddened to learn of the death of poet Mary Oliver.  Her poem, “In Blackwater Woods,” now forms my computer desktop background.  I invite you to go read it.  You can and should also go here for another fine short poem of hers, and some moving tributes.  Oliver would not want any of us to grieve overmuch.  (“In Blackwater Woods” will tell you why).  Yet, grief is among the most exquisite offerings we can make to each other, both those who are suffering and dying, and those who remain behind, and it is right that we should feel it.

Steve Edwards recently wrote a thoughtful essay on the differences between entering a bookstore in one’s twenties and one’s forties.

For me, the principal difference is (was) that, in my twenties, I entered a bookstore to do something: read and study the books I needed to pass the tests and earn my degrees.  In my forties (I was still teaching), I entered the store to know things, and to find the books that would help me to know those things–not for money or career advancement, as important as those things are, but for my own sake, my own soul.

I take as a kind of axiom “It is better to do right than to be right.”  (I learned that from television, so it must be true.)  Yet, I’m aware that the desire to know things is a manifestation of the desire to be right, and thus, I have to work to keep it under control.  Still, the urge is in me, as it was in John Donne, to know things–the math I flunked in high school and college; the physics I barely glimpsed in those years; the biology I loved but could not pursue.

Expressing the desire and tamping it down both mean that I possess more books than I can possibly read.  I’ll die not knowing many of the things I would like to know.  Is there intelligent life in the universe besides us?  Are there other universes besides this one?  Are there better ways of managing human affairs than through capitalism and socialism?  I do not know, and I doubt I ever shall; but more than one bookish soul has kept more books around than can be read expressly for the purpose of driving her life forward; of reminding herself that there are always things to know, always reasons to think and to read, and then go get more books to do more of the same.

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