There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!”
–Henry David Thoreau
This era of my life began with reading a book–Walden, of course, for why else would I be inspired to retire to this very same cabin if I hadn’t read the words which that great experiment in living had generated!
It is not that I thought that I would have my great, great, grand uncle’s experience, for I am not him, though his eyes and nose and long sloping figure find their replica in my face and form.
My mind travels its own pathways, perhaps circling his trails, perhaps not. Perhaps my thoughts dart through the undergrowth, following the trails of mice and squirrels, sneaking after the lizards, then starting up with the meadow lark and bobwhite when a branch breaks suddenly.
When my thoughts jump like that, they leave all ancestors behind, taking flight, stretching wings, joining with blue until space melts away and all we feel is the quickening of breath.
Or maybe, that is what he felt, too, all those years ago, during the solitary walks on this very land.
I am beginning to think of the Emerson Institute as the house that words built.
It was my words written in the business proposal which persuaded the Emerson Foundation to lend their name and deed the land.
It is my words transmitted to my noble readers which will fund and furnish the home we build here.
More, then, than the house which I build with my writing, this is a home which is built through your reading. Without readers, we would have no funds.
It is the silence out of which the words come that is of more value than the words themselves.
It is the reader in whom those words find their garden soil that provides the greater gift of imagination.
My contribution as a reader of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God brings as much into the world as her contribution in having written it: this is the writer’s humility.
Our words have no life beyond solipsism without the reader.
With the reader, our words become more than simple vanity. It is the reader’s imagination that brings the words into life, carrying them from page or screen into the fire of thought and imagination of another.
When I read Austen, I breathe her words. They move through me like air, leaving behind a stray comma in which my mind rests, quietly, in contemplation of a ha-ha in the garden at Sotherton Court.
Here, in this pause, is where the magic between the words occurs. I am in the ha-ha, unable to cross its boundaries without betraying something of my own understanding, and when I emerge, I am not the same self-strong assured woman that I was before I picked up the book.
I have become altered–and it is an alteration that removes artifice, leaving in its place, my own acknowledgement of the vanity of pretense.
And yet, what is not pretend when a reader contemplates fiction?
Yet the alteration that occurs through this conjoined act of imagining has as much reality as anything within and without.
How have I been altered through walking down the streets of Middlemarch, waiting for the sound of the textile factory to remind me that, as a woman, my choices are limited? How am I changed when, upon opening my eyes to find that I am living here and now, I discover that my choices, while still limited, face different perimeters than those circumscribing the lives of Eliot’s heroines?
Do I not hear the roar on the other side of silence, as well?
Through reading, I am no longer “well wadded with stupidity.” A certain dull comfort drops away, and, as I hear the squirrel’s heart beat, my life thrills with keenness.
Enough nonsense! I have plants to tend and more books to write and plans to consider and meals to prepare and dishes to wash and then, perhaps, I will steal a few more hours to read and have my life changed once again!