I often liken great writing to falling down.
I’m not even sure why, except that when I read a great line, or wonderful paragraph – when the words leap off the page and into my throat, salmon-drunk – the sensation I have is of falling. One minute, I’m upright, engaged, fully conscious; the next, the world is sideways and my cheek is pressed to the floor, while the tectonic plates inside shift and grind and change. I live for those moments, and I can never predict where I’ll come across them next.
In any of the six books I’m reading now, in the poetry I peruse online, in a random comment or Tumblr page or New Yorker piece? It could be anywhere. I’ve become a bit of a junkie for this sensation, this collapse of self into literature, into text itself, so I read widely, almost feverishly.
Which is why I was so horrified to learn the meaning of “TL;DR” a few weeks ago. Too long, didn’t read. I keep seeing it in comments on articles across the Net, and on statuses and links on social media, like some kind of apathetic virus. Worse, I started to see writers themselves incorporating it into their process, writing less – which, when the subject is big and complex and worthy of in-depth investigation, actually isn’t good.
It leads to a less-informed citizenry, which leads to poorer decisions, to greater intolerance, and allows the elite to get away with pretty much anything they want. Just as bad, everyone becomes that little bit more boring, that little bit less developed, and well rounded. We’re all busy as hell, but you can make the time to finish an article, to learn the full extent of rape against men in war, or to get a thorough and fascinating profile of President Obama, or be charmed and re-invigorated by the talent of Maya Angelou.
The thing is, as often as I am compelled to share the spoils of the writing I come across on the internet, I know that the longer the piece is, the less likely anyone is to read it or comment or share. People aren’t even prepared to have the conversation. The profile of President Obama is 18 pages, a fair slog for anyone, and it’s not that I don’t understand why people can’t be bothered sometimes, or that I myself don’t sometimes just want to skip it, it’s only problematic I feel when the practice becomes so commonplace as to have a shorthand. As to change the way we interact with the written word.
The value of reading widely and reading deeply cannot be overstated. To read is to douse yourself in another’s soul, to lose yourself, to silence the cacophony of your mind and stretch. This is another sensation I equate with reading, stretching – your mind, your heart, your everything becomes more. Nor am I being overly whimsical, there have been scientific studies showing that reading, even just one book, can have an immediate impact on your brain that lasts for several days.
But let me return to the reason I wanted to write this post, it actually had little to do with the insidious “TL;DR”, or with people reading less, it was just to talk about the Paris Review interview with Maya Angelou that I linked to earlier. Now, I’ve read several of her poems, and I’m aware of her general presence and legacy but this interview, which I read in my lunch break, was like a supernova going off in my cerebral cortex. Her charm and grace and way with words was so instantly apparent that I determined to immediately purchase her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, after work.
Which I have done and began reading and am already in love with. Now, in preparation for few people actually reading that piece, I’ve chosen three paragraphs she wrote that smashed my ribcage to powder. And you will see, I hope, how, even in an interview, a great writer can speak to you with such resonance that you know you are destined to read them, because in so many ways, you already share the same breath. Believe me when I say picking just three paragraphs was difficult, and you really should read the whole thing, then buy her books, but if you can’t, if you only have space for three paragraphs, let it be these:
1. “Every human being has paid the earth to grow up. Most people don’t grow up. It’s too damn difficult. What happens is most people get older. That’s the truth of it. They honor their credit cards, they find parking spaces, they marry, they have the nerve to have children, but they don’t grow up. Not really. They get older. But to grow up costs the earth, the earth. It means you take responsibility for the time you take up, for the space you occupy. It’s serious business. And you find out what it costs us to love and to lose, to dare and to fail. And maybe even more, to succeed. What it costs, in truth.”
2. “When I’m writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that. But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and the delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language.”
3. “Terence said homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me. When you look up Terence in the encyclopedia, you see beside his name, in italics, sold to a Roman senator, freed by that Senator. He became the most popular playwright in Rome. Six of his plays and that statement have come down to us from 154 b.c. This man, not born white, not born free, without any chance of ever receiving citizenship, said, I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.”
Now if that doesn’t move you, nothing will.
And I found it because though I was tired, in pain, and at work, reading is everything.