When I was in first grade, I read The Little House on the Prairie–all 335 pages of it–to my class. Out loud.
When I was in third or fourth grade, I regularly checked out impossible stacks of books. One day, the librarian voiced her incredulousness: “I don’t believe for a second that you read all those books. It’s just not possible.”
I’ve never forgotten her and I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive her.
By the time I was in my teens, I thought I was an intellectual bad-ass. I was well-read and confident in my abilities to analyze a text. When I was 22, I was still pretty sure I was an intellectual bad-ass. Now, at 32, I’m under no illusions: it’s only as you start building serious knowledge and, more importantly, life experience, that anything you read ever really makes sense to you in a deep, felt, true way.
So Reeti Roy’s smart, thoughtful essay, “Notes on Writing: The Legitimacy of Reading and Placing Books in Context,” resonated with me, especially this part:
Till the age of fourteen, I believed I was well read and that I was using my critical faculties to decipher fiction. Today, I believe that I was too unaware of histories and peoples to have come to rational, informed conclusions.
I read classics like Robinson Crusoe, for instance, but failed to consider the ill-treatment of Friday. I read Jane Eyre, but had somehow overlooked the plight of “the mad woman in the attic,” Bertha Mason.
Reeti goes on to explain how we experience different layers of reading throughout our lives. Though there’s not a single “legitimate” way to read or interpret a text, she says, as we mature we must understand that “[w]ithout studying or being aware of the social, political, and historical context of the times / places that books were written, we risk creating a monolithic notion of books and characters in our minds.”
Reeti’s essay couldn’t have been more timely. I’ve been mulling over an essay I want to write about visiting Eatonville, which is the Florida town where the writer Zora Neale Hurston was born, and which is the setting of one of her best-known books, Their Eyes Were Watching God. I’ve been reading some back story on Hurston, who saw the town not so much as an inhabitable place for her, but as a setting from which stories could be mined (successfully, obviously). This understanding of Hurston’s relationship to a place that is so palpable it’s almost a living, breathing character makes my re-reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God an entirely different experience than when I read this book for the first time in a college African American literature class.
And then there’s this: the experience of having immersed myself in African diaspora studies, particularly in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and being married to an Afro-Cuban man, two experiences that mark my worldview in a new way and which compel me to interpret this passage from Chapter 1 of Their Eyes much differently now than I would have 10 years ago:
“The people all saw her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.
“Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.”
Cono! What do you make of that?
I wish I could step back into that college classroom for a minute, or talk to myself lying beneath the tree on the quad, where I read this book and contemplated the strange beauty of ginkgo leaves bursting out of their little barrels in spring. I wish I knew what I thought about this passage then– did I “get” it at all or was this all just a package of abstract notions wrapped up into two paragraphs of vividly searing, metaphoric prose?
I don’t know. All I know now is that I’m not an intellectual bad-ass. I’m just a woman who keeps taking what she lives and learns and practices applying it to understand just a little bit more.