I was out having a great time with Jeanette Winterson last night. Ok, maybe not with her personally, but I was in the audience and had a great seat and she even looked directly at me once! Bookman came too and has never read any of her books. He didn’t even know what she looked like and when she walked out on stage he cracked me up when he leaned over and said, She has Margaret Atwood hair! Winterson’s hair is not gray like Atwood’s but both have the same kind of curls and wear their hair about the same length with a similar style. I love their hair and I sometimes wish my loose, corkscrew tending curls were more like theirs. But I digress!
Winterson was at the University of Minnesota to deliver the autumn Esther Freier Endowed Lecture in Literature. Freier was first a student and then a professor at the U but not in the literature department. Nope, she was a chemist. But she loved the arts and was well aware that funding was hard to come by so when she died she left an endowment to the literature department that allows them to have two lectures a year and make it open to the public. How awesome is that?
Winterson’s lecture was titled “Reading as an Act of Rebellion.” If you have read anything she has written you will know she is funny and smart. In person she is that too but add personable and engaging and you will understand why at the end Bookman and I both wanted to yell, please keep talking because an hour is not long enough!
She ranged far and wide from the historical to the personal. She declared reading an extreme sport because one pits oneself with and against the best in literature.
The act of reading has through much of history been rebellious. Who was and was not allowed to read was controlled. Women weren’t allowed to do it and slaves certainly weren’t allowed. The more people read, the more they could think for themselves and those in power did not want to give up their power. When a person reads, and reads widely and diversely, it makes them one of the most threatening things in the world. Books can change the way we think and feel. Books show us multiple points of view. And while someone can see you reading and what you are reading, they cannot know what is going on in your head while you are reading. This makes you and reading dangerous.
Just like we talk about valuing biodiversity in nature, we should value biodiversity in reading. And we need to not just give it lip service and say “yay for diverse books!” We have to read those books too. Books are not meant to comfort, though they can do that. Books should expand the world for us and yes, even make us feel uncomfortable. A book that makes you feel uncomfortable is giving you an opportunity to think and experience and learn something.
Truth and fact are not the same thing, Winterson remarked. Simplification is a lie. We have language to help us make sense of complexity. Reading is great training in both diversity and complexity. The more reading you do, the more language you have and language is power. Just ask Malala Yousafza, Salman Rushdie, and those who work at Charlie Hebdo.
For the most part, Winterson said, we don’t have to ban or burn books in the west these days because people are just too busy to read them. There is no reason to get worked up over what people are reading when no one is reading to begin with. Winterson is also not a fan of ebooks because if you can’t see the books, if they’re virtual, how do you know they exist? Give her the solid book on the bookshelf. That way nothing is hidden. Amazon can’t erase it from all the Kindles. Can you imagine, she asked, if Amazon came to your door and took your copy of 1984 instead of making it magically disappear from your ereader?
Creativity and imagination is the birthright of everybody. We don’t have to apologize for art and culture nor do we have to explain. The mind is not a luxury.
Such a fantastic lecture! I am so grateful I got to go. I left feeling buoyant and excited, ever so proud to be a reader and determined to be as rebellious as I possibly can.