Yesterday was World Book Day, something book bloggers really ought to commemorate! We haven’t posted about our true love – books – for a while because life is slightly chaotic at the moment, but in honour of a day dedicated to the magic that is literature, here’s an excerpt from author Marilynne Robinson’s essay titled “Imagination & Community: What Holds Us Together”. She talks so eloquently and lovingly about the power stories have! You can read the entire essay here.
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Over the years I have collected so many books that, in aggregate, they can fairly be called a library. I don’t know what percentage of them I have read. Increasingly I wonder how many of them I ever will read. This has done nothing to dampen my pleasure in acquiring more books. But it has caused me to ponder the meaning they have for me, and the fact that to me they epitomize one great aspect of the goodness of life. Recently I bought a book titled On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts, Volume One: Classic Formulations. The title itself is worth far more than the price of the book, and then there is the table of contents. So far I have read only the last and latest selection, from The Wandering Cherub by Silesius Angelus, who wrote in the seventeenth century.
In the stack of magazines, read and unread, that I can never bring myself to throw away, there are any number of articles suggesting that science, too, explores the apophatic—reality that eludes words—dark matter, dark energy, the unexpressed dimensions proposed by string theory, the imponderable strangeness described by quantum theory. These magazine essays might be titled “Learned Ignorance,” or “The Cloud of Unknowing,” or they might at least stand beside Plato’s and Plotinus’s demonstrations of the failures of language, which are, paradoxically, demonstrations of the extraordinary power of language to evoke a reality beyond its grasp, to evoke a sense of what cannot be said.
I love all this for a number of reasons, one of them being that, as a writer, I continually attempt to make inroads on the vast terrain of what cannot be said—or said by me, at least. I seem to know by intuition a great deal that I cannot find words for, and to enlarge the field of my intuition every time I fail again to find these words. That is to say, the unnamed is overwhelmingly present and real for me. And this is truer because the moment it stops being a standard for what I do say is the moment my language goes slack and my imagination disengages itself. I would almost say it is the moment in which my language becomes false. The frontiers of the unsayable, and the avenues of approach to those frontiers, have been opened for me by every book I have ever read that was in any degree ambitious, earnest, or imaginative; by every good teacher I have had; by music and painting; by conversation that was in any way interesting, even conversation overheard as it passed between strangers.
As a fiction writer I do have to deal with the nuts and bolts of temporal reality—from time to time a character has to walk through a door and close it behind him, the creatures of imagination have to eat and sleep, as all other creatures do. I would have been a poet if I could, to have avoided this obligation to simulate the hourliness and dailiness of human life. This is not to say that books could not be written about walking through a door—away from what? toward what? leaving what wake of consequence? creating what stir of displacement? To speak in the terms that are familiar to us all, there was a moment in which Jesus, as a man, a physical presence, left that supper at Emmaus. His leave-taking was a profound event for which the supper itself was precursor. Presence is a great mystery, and presence in absence, which Jesus promised and has epitomized, is, at a human scale, a great reality for all of us in the course of ordinary life.
I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community. I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of—who knows it better than I?—people who do not exist. And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced by the nonexistent, that great clan whose numbers increase prodigiously with every publishing season. I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.
I love the writers of my thousand books. It pleases me to think how astonished old Homer, whoever he was, would be to find his epics on the shelf of such an unimaginable being as myself, in the middle of an unrumored continent. I love the large minority of the writers on my shelves who have struggled with words and thoughts and, by my lights, have lost the struggle. All together they are my community, the creators of the very idea of books, poetry, and extended narratives, and of the amazing human conversation that has taken place across millennia, through weal and woe, over the heads of interest and utility.
We live on a little island of the articulable, which we tend to mistake for reality itself. We can and do make small and tedious lives as we sail through the cosmos on our uncannily lovely little planet, and this is surely remarkable. But we do so much else besides. For example, we make language. A language is a grand collaboration, a collective art form which we begin to master as babes and sucklings, and which we preserve, modify, cull, enlarge as we pass through our lives. Some students in France drew my attention to the enormous number of English words that describe the behavior of light. Glimmer, glitter, glister, glisten, gleam, glow, glare, shimmer, sparkle, shine, and so on. These old words are not utilitarian. They reflect an aesthetic attention to experience that has made, and allows us to make, pleasing distinctions among, say, a candle flame, the sun at its zenith, and the refraction of light by a drop of rain. How were these words coined and retained, and how have they been preserved through generations, so that English-speaking people use them with the precision necessary to preserving them? None of this can be ascribed to conscious choice on the part of anyone, but somehow the language created, so to speak, a prism through which light passes, by means of which its qualities are arrayed. One of the pleasures of writing is that so often I know that there is in fact a word that is perfect for the use I want to put it to, and when I summon it, it comes, though I might not have thought of it for years. And then I think, somewhere someone was the first person to use that word. Then how did it make its way into the language, and how did it retain the specificity that makes it perfect for this present use? Language is profoundly communal, and in the mere fact of speaking, then writing, a wealth of language grows and thrives among us that has enabled thought and knowledge in a degree we could never calculate. As individuals and as a species, we are unthinkable without our communities.
I remember once, as a child, walking into a library, looking around at the books, and thinking, I could do that. In fact I didn’t do it until I was well into my thirties, but the affinity I felt with books as such preserved in me the secret knowledge that I was a writer when any dispassionate appraisal of my life would have dismissed the notion entirely. So I belong to the community of the written word in several ways. First, books have taught me most of what I know, and they have trained my attention and my imagination. Second, they gave me a sense of the possible, which is the great service—and too often, when it is ungenerous, the great disservice—a community performs for its members. Third, they embodied richness and refinement of language, and the artful use of language in the service of the imagination. Fourth, they gave me and still give me courage. Sometimes, when I have spent days in my study dreaming a world while the world itself shines outside my windows, forgetting to call my mother because one of my nonbeings has come up with a thought that interests me, I think, this is a very odd way to spend a life. But I have my library all around me, my cloud of witnesses to the strangeness and brilliance of human experience, who have helped me to my deepest enjoyments of it. Every writer I know, when asked how to become a writer, responds with one word: Read. Excellent advice, for a great many reasons, a few of which I have suggested here.
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Marilynne Robinson is the author of the novels Lila (2014), Home (2008), Gilead (2004) — winner of the Pulitzer Prize — and Housekeeping (1981), as well as four books of nonfiction: Mother Country (1989), The Death of Adam (1998), Absence of Mind (2010), When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012), and The Givenness of Things (2015). This essay was excerpted from When I Was a Child I Read Books, a collection of essays published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, copyright Marilynne Robinson.