WHAT I READ MATTERS
I mean this title sentence every which way you can read it.
I'm guessing most people will receive it with a glib, "Of course, what you read matters; it influences what you believe."
But I mean this sentence much more expansively: What I read, the physical form of it, really matters. As does reading it (as opposed to listening to somebody else read a text). I care who may have owned or touched the book before me, and any history I may know attached to the book affects my reading experience.
I spent this week reading a 75-cent, paperback of The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Robert Lewis Taylor's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1959 novel about a 14-year-old relentlessly smart-alecky (and sometimes very funny) boy's picaresque adventures during 1849, following his pipe-dreaming gambling doctor father across the country to find gold in California.
If I were reading Jaimie McPheeters as an ebook, I might have abandoned it at the first mention of "darkies" because I just don't have the stomach for this in 2021. If I were reading a shiny new edition paperback, same thing. Yes, the writing is good, I might have reasoned, but why subject myself to casual racism and so many words? The book is of a bygone era and style.
But I'm reading the cracked brown pages turned and read by my father on his suburban commute to and from his job in New York City in 1960. I know this because I found his train ticket stub, used as a book mark, on the last page, and I know he loved this book because he once told me he did. Probably that's why I grabbed it from my mother's last house several years after my father's own pipe dreams and addictions imploded and he stuck a gun in his mouth. And it's why the book has stayed on the top shelf in my apartment since 1973.
I'd been eying it for months while I did my aerobic workouts. The spine drew me. I even got up on a ladder a few months ago to see what it was and when I saw, I remembered Dad's smile and joy when he said it was a really good book. I'll read that, I thought.
And it took until this week, months after the first beckoning, for me to pull it down and wipe off the dust bunnies.
When I lie on my couch and read this book, I know I'm touching something my father thought was good. I know that when he read this he was the sane, loving man who loved to read and loved the fact that I loved reading too, even though we had almost nothing else in common.
As I carefully turn the cracked pages, I feel stretched across time, from this moment in 2021 to 1960 to 1849, and I feel all of the eras viscerally which expands me into an ocean-size tolerant witness—more curious than judging. And the transformations over time are astonishing. And just that gives me hope for a future I cannot see. My nausea at casual racism doesn't clear, but a glimmer of light penetrates it, whispering, "Don't give up. Things can change." And gradually I see that the violence and racism in this book were not at all casual. Rather they were brutal and intentional. Taylor was showing the sadism and cruelty in all its horror by so glibly conveying it as a fact of life. And a fact of life that has not changed is that as powerful as is our will to survive, we humans have an equal capacity for violence, superior judgements, and self-destruction either directly or indirectly (by destroying whomever we categorize as "other").
I'm not a terribly tolerant person. I avoid people who complain incessantly and usually am more interested in solutions than listening to spiraling tales of misery. But reading the packed small type in this 500+-page Giant Cardinal Pocket Book edition that "includes every word contained in the original, higher-priced edition" that is "printed from brand-new plates made from completely reset, clear easy-to-read type," rather than being annoyed, I find myself marveling that my 42-year-old father read this without glasses and so did lots of other people in 1960. I admire his vision! Isn't that silly? But it's what I feel.
As I read Jaimie's father, Dr. Sardius McPheeters, M.D., exaggerate his possibilities of good fortune, accounting assiduously for how he squanders money in letters to his wife back in Louisville, and eventually be done in by his flaws, I realize my father, who did virtually the same things in 1968, must on some level have known himself and even had a sense of humor about it at one time. And I'm amazed at how fast and dramatic was his fall from self-knowledge into paranoia, financial desperation, and who knows what else. And knowing he loved this story, I cannot unknow that he had goodness and humor in him. And I feel glad. And sad. And so, 53 years after his death, I know him a little better. And that makes me glad and sad too.
Matlock stripped, and we led the way up the knoll, the children running behind, screaming, "Fight! Fight!" dogs barking, the women taking a stand at a distance where they could not be accused of unseemly curiosity, but able to see a little, too, and over all the air of serious, hurried portentousness that such physical encounters always breed. It's infectious; it stirs up the blood; one finds oneself on the point of bristling out of sympathy, and even looking around for somebody giving offense. (203-204)
After the fight is over, the losers—the people who had initiated the fight—were gradually idealized:
Before the ruckus, there wasn't hardly a soul could stand those clodhoppers, or their womenfolks either, but now you would have thought they were a collection of missionaries. It was disgusting.
My father said it wasn't worth worrying about; it was just part of the general cussedness of humans. He said they'd go baaa-ing off in another direction as soon as something occurred to them.
"I've seen this sort of perverseness in elections. A man will be in office, doing fine, honest, upright, hardworking, even noble, as far as you can find that quality in a politician, and the opposition will put up a known scoundrel that hasn't a thing to recommend him except noise. But if he brays long enough and loud enough he'll bray himself right in. People are prepared to believe anything about a person as long as it's bad." (207)
Some things may never change, but if we can see them, perhaps we can choose to mitigate them. I'd not have seen what's really in Robert Lewis Taylor's book if I hadn't given myself time to move out of my knee-jerk reaction to words. And it is only because my father liked this book that I gave myself time to see this.
And all this insight from a cracking 61-year-old 75-cent paperback.
". . . A man ort to hold judgment till he's sure."
That seemed to be the sentiment all around. There wasn't any harm in these people; they were only average. Most of their bad thoughts came out of fear, and to tell the truth, that's what causes most of the troubles in the world. (246)