When they're shooting police in my hometown, can I go on reading?
Flannery O’Connor once said that, 'in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements and statistics, but by the stories it tells.'
Given the grim headlines this summer, is reading for fun pretty much beside the point?
It’s a topic I’ve touched on before in previous “Chapter & Verse” posts, including some thoughts I offered after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and a recent Father’s Day essay about how reading sustained those who fought World War II.
But the question loomed for me with fresh urgency not long ago, as I sat on a Sunday morning reading on the couch. Sirens pierced the quiet, sounded by the emergency of a shooting that injured six law enforcement officers, killing three. It happened just down the street from my Baton Rouge home, part of a larger pattern of violence shaking the world this summer. From Orlando to Dallas to Paris to Munich, it’s been a tragic season, not exactly the kind of summer that seems right for thinking about books for the beach.
As a Baton Rouge journalist, I’ve been thinking a lot and writing a lot about our grief here, but in recent days, in search of healing, I’ve returned to the nightstand where a Father’s Day gift had lay unopened. It’s a copy of “Wonder and Other Survivor Skills,” a 2012 anthology of essays about the value of wonder drawn from Orion magazine. Scott Russell Sanders, one of the contributors, discusses the value of stories themselves in answering the anguish of the times. He quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The maker of a sentence launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and old Night....”
What Emerson seems to be saying is that in connecting with stories and storytellers, we can find the promise of order in a disordered world. Sanders also quotes from Flannery O’Connor, who said that “in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements and statistics, but by the stories it tells.”
Those words have reminded me that while reading can be fun, it also fills the basic need for narrative that helps us make sense of what can seem senseless times.
So I’m continuing to read this summer, thumbing through Kathleen Dean Moore’s “Great Tide Rising,” her own meditation on the worth of wonder in a wounded world. I’ve been reading “The Time of Our Lives,” a collection of columns from conservative commentator Peggy Noonan, and “Bobby Kennedy,” a new biography of the iconic leader by Larry Tye.
I read to restore my sense of possibility in a perilous age – a good thing to do this summer, and every season of the year.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana and an essayist for Phi Kappa Phi Forum, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”