Reading Beyond the Page

photo by haumont on Flickr

by Kyessa L. Moore

I have been reading in one way or another my entire life.  In my first semester of graduate school, after a class on literary theory, I felt called upon by a deep sense of injustice to explain the reasons for a female Indian professor’s choice of a sari attire when she teaches her university classes – she chooses to wear a sari rather than “regular clothes.”  Regardless of what I said – spinning together feminist and race theory into a pot that I hoped would hold water – or what her conception of the truth is regarding her clothes, the fact is that she makes a conscious choice to carry herself in a specific way. Her brilliance, as well as her humanity, demands a hesitation in hasty judgments.  We all calculate our behavior, even those of us who do not appear to. 
 

What, you probably demand, does this have to do with reading?
 

After loving reading for so long, I find I cannot think about it as a static activity of book in hand, in two dimensions, anymore.  Ideas take flight and swirl around me, affecting the shape of all I knew before and how I will think about things in the future. The more I read, the less stable the world around me appears, because the very act of reading changes the nature of reality, and once I began with books I could not stop myself from reading everything–including other people.  Its what it felt like to put on glasses for the first time at ten years old, when I hadn’t been able to see well for years.
 

To reveal how I began to read the world, I will use the first book that changed my life, and which, after a dozen reads, continues to shape how I think.  In The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison, we meet the Breedlove family.  Poor, black, and described as ugly because of a deep and abiding conviction that doesn’t appear to have any factual basis, the four of them live in two rooms, in a converted storefront. They order a couch and it arrives with a large tear in the back which the company will not compensate them for, and which, as poor Blacks in 1940’s America, they must live with as the rip continues to expand over the years. 
 

In my mind this tear was like a tidal wave. It was a tear in the very nature of how the Breedloves viewed themselves; it represented their inability to change their lives because of the horrors of racism and poverty. The tear was their broken dreams and their unfulfilled longings in physical form haunting them day after day.  The tear, in so public a piece of furniture, was the tangible representation of the inexpressible melancholy of their lives; like reading someone’s diary out loud on a street corner.
 

After this, I saw the tear everywhere: people’s lives laid bear in how they carried themselves. I realized that we all have fissures; verbally inexpressible clues of what is happening right below the surface.  This awareness gave everyone an element of grace. 

 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, that age old decider of the fate of language, Grace is, “Something that imparts beauty; an ornament; the part in which the beauty of a thing consists.”  It is also, “favour or goodwill, in contradistinction to right or obligation, as the ground of a concession.”  In other words, everyone became capable of beauty to me, and worthy of the concession that they are, in fact, human.  Each new book, each new story, adds to the wonderful complexity that people are capable of, and deepens the ability to empathize even if you don’t sympathize–to understand the feeling even if you cannot share it.
 

What the Breedloves, this female Indian professor, and reading literature reveals is that the act of reading is one that we all engage in all the time.  We are all readers, whether it’s reading the furniture you are forced to live with as telling you that you are worthless, wearing a specific form of clothing so people can read who you are by your appearance, reading a book and learning that your place in the world is far more complex than you first thought, or writing a blog and hoping others read in my story the power of literature to expand your life like hot air in a balloon. And that’s pretty amazing.

 

 


Kyessa L. Moore is a graduate student, working towards a PhD. in English Literature, at Princeton University. She is eternally grateful for a childhood spent buried in books at the Liverpool Public Library.

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5 thoughts on “Reading Beyond the Page

  1. Your post, Kyessa, captures the power of stories. Whether or not we read, eventually we all become in some ways readers of the world, and in our own fashion too, storytellers. Stories (imaginative literature), though, give us the power to read the world more intimately, more deeply, hopefully more compassionately, and they allow us to write our own stories perhaps more imaginatively.

  2. Kyessa, thanks so much for this poetic reading of books and the world. Books are not dead on a shelf–no, they are alive and vital. They call to us as we call to them. The tear in the world has its depth and its beauty. Amazing!

  3. Kyessa, my wife and I have been invited to attend a Hindu thread ceremony for two brothers each of us teach, and I, coach in squash and tennis. We are particularly honored because we are the only two faculty members who will represent the school. What shall we bring? What shall we wear? Should we wear a “specific form of clothing so that people can read who we are by our appearance?” We think it would be best to come in our Western clothes, not a sari and sherwani. Of course the family would appreciate whatever we wear or bring. But what have we brought by offering them our Western way of thinking: our study of the origin of the species, our literary mythology, our informalities? Actually, we have learned much more from them, from their thought, their responses, and their dignity. They can’t completely read our ways; we can’t completly empathize with their stories; but we have become more a part of the thread that sends them out into the world.

  4. Kyessa,
    I love your story of reading the torn couch, because now I want to read my tattered couch passed down from my father who used it in his Princetoin dorm room during the twenties. Now I will look forward to burying myself in captivating pages, but that book better be good! Because when I sink into that aged couch I’ll want to read what it says about my father’s past. Now that’s going to be fun reading. Lamont

  5. Pingback: Peace Through Fiction « Changing Lives, Changing Minds: A Changing Lives Through Literature Blog

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