I just discovered Richard Wright’s Black Boy pretty recently. It’s not quite a direct memoir (many of the personal facts and anecdotes are fuzzy and were inserted for narrative effect) as it a vivid impression of what it was like to be a young black man in 1920-30ss America. It makes that time period from that perspective alive and present.
Reading an evocative account of another person’s experience closes the distance between you. We can never fully know what’s it like to be another person, but at times the written word can get you as close to that as we can get. In all our differences, there is a sameness to humanity, a familiarity. We have that core of self inside that hurts and loves, that wants dignity, that finds it hard to balance shame and self-worth.
“It would have been impossible for me to have told anyone what I derived from these novels, for it was nothing less than a sense of life itself.”
I relate to the Richard in Black Boy more than I expected because we share a deep passion. We are both in love with reading. Books gave us both a sense of relief, a taste of a different world when we were very young. My struggle growing up wasn’t with race, but with gender, with religion, and with limitations of thought imposed by a closed and scared community. I was raised with anxiety, but my heart longed to explore. My heart longed for less fear and more understanding.
“But a vague hunger could come over me for books, books that opened up new avenues of feeling and seeing . . . Again I would read and wonder as only the naive and unlettered can read and wonder, feeling that I carried a secret, criminal burden about with me each day.”
David Foster Wallace spent a lot of time together trying to pin down what it is about reading that we love so much, that we need so much, and they decided, officially, that both writing and reading makes us feel less alone. That’s about as true as it gets, and that is why I read and why I write. I have always struggled with loneliness, but the intimacy of written words have been the best (temporary) antidote for loneliness I have known. Conversations end, things are always left unsaid, but with books, you can go deeper. You can explore paths conversation did not have the time for. Books say the things we were afraid to say, and illuminate ideas we’ve never considered, ideas that are can be hard to articulate in real time. Books have been my friends since I could first read a sentence, and we are now closer than ever.
“It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different.”
One of the major breakthroughs of Black Boy is when the valid alienation Richard feels between himself and white people is engulfed by the power of reading.
“My first serious novel was Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. It made me see my boss, Mr. Gerald, and identify him as an American type. I would smile when I saw him lugging his golf bags into the office. I had always felt a vast distance separating me from the boss, and now I felt closer to him, though still distant. I felt now that I knew him, that I could feel the very limits of his narrow life. And this had happened because I had read a novel about a mythical man called George F. Babbitt.”
A good story is titillating, is exciting, but much like Richard, I’m more interested in the internal stirrings of different characters. I want a good plot, but I need to really care about the characters, to feel the world through them.
“The plots and stories in the novels did not interest me so much as the point of view revealed. I gave myself over to each novel without reserve, without trying to criticize it; it was enough for me to see and feel something different. And for me, everything was something different. Reading was like a drug. The novels created the moods in which I lived for days.“
Black Boy also addresses the paradox that while reading can bridge gaps between us and other people, this world of intimacy and illumination can make the facades and charades of every day (today so expertly rendered by things like Facebook and Instagram) reality seem strange. When piercing truths and emotional honesty color the mind, the motions of social expectations can seem gray and distant. Reading offers a hope that maybe other people can see that self inside you that feels authentic, that maybe your outward identity can someday truly align with how you feel inside, but the pressures that keep the world turning impede that. Reading can be a gift that hurts, but the pain is worth it because when the outside world goes slim and thin, the key to other worlds is always there as long as you have access to your favorite reading materials.
“My reading had created a vast sense of distance between me and the world in which I lived and tried to make a living, and that sense of distance was increasing each day.”
Reading and writing are not cures for loneliness, for identity struggles, for feelings alienation, for hungers for intimacy and greater understanding. In fact, they often ignite fresh hungers, and the give a sometimes painful perspective on what our lives lack. The passions that reading ignites can never be satiated, and there is no ultimate revelation that changes and fixes everything. Bu,t we are not creatures build for endings, for finality, though we often think that’s what we want. We seem happiest when we are chasing something. The world of books, of imagination, of long-form communication, these things keep our appetites whet and always on the hunt.