Finding Yourself in an Expanding Universe, Reading Literature

(Stringer/Reuters)A letter to Audrey Hall, eleven years old and the winner of the New York Public Library’s 2019 summer-reading essay contest.

Dear Audrey,

I enjoyed reading your essay in Slate about Sharon Draper’s novel,  Blended. I myself have not read it, but it sounds like a pretty good book. I am sure your review did it justice.

You wrote that you enjoyed the book in part because you saw something of yourself in the main character, Isabella, who, like you, has a white mother and a black father who are divorced. What’s funny is that I saw something of myself in your essay, even though you wouldn’t think at first that you and I are very much alike. I’m a lot older than you are, for one thing, and you’re from the Bronx, while I’m from a small city in West Texas. (But some of the best New Yorkers are from Texas — take, for example, Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.) My parents were divorced when I was little, too, and I found it disorienting and confusing to travel between their houses. I’d go stay with my father for a week or two in the summer, and I didn’t like it, because I was far away from my friends and my things, and I didn’t know anybody where he lived.

I don’t know what it’s like being mixed-race, though there are a lot of people who are mixed-race where you live (about one person out of every 20 is mixed-race in the Bronx) and also in much of the rest of the country. I was adopted when I was three days old, and I’ve never met my biological parents, so I don’t really know what my background is like. They told me I was of German ancestry on one side of my biological family, but there isn’t any way to know that, really, and sometimes people in Texas used to say “German” when they really meant “white, but I don’t really know from where.”

What I do know something about is libraries. When I was your age, there were not a lot of bookstores in towns like the one I grew up in — there was no such thing as Barnes & Noble back then. And even if there had been, I wouldn’t have been able to make much use of them: There are not a lot of people in the town where I’m from (not by New York standards, anyway) but it is very large and spread out, and everything is far from everything else, which is really, really inconvenient if you don’t have a car, which I didn’t when I was eleven. (Because I was eleven.) I also didn’t have any money. (Because I was eleven.) So buying books would have been difficult.

(You write that the library is “free,” but it isn’t really free. Somebody pays for it: It costs about $300 million to operate the New York public libraries every year.)

So, books were hard to come by. But one year they decided to start keeping the library at my elementary school open during the summers, and that was only two blocks away. I won’t say I read every book in that library, but I read a lot of them — hundreds of books a year, especially in the summers. Some of the books I read then I still like a lot. One of them was about a brother and sister who run away from home and go to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I’d never been to New York, but that sounded like a good idea to me. I understood why the older sister in that book wanted to do that — and we had that in common, even if we didn’t have many other things in common.

Which brings me back to your essay. There isn’t anything wrong with enjoying a book or a movie because you have something in common with one of the characters. But what you will find — what I have found, anyway — is that you’ll discover things you have in common with people you meet in books that are a lot more complicated and important than what your parents are like or where you live. I’ve been reading a famous novel called Middlemarch, by the 19th-century English writer George Eliot (the writer’s real name was Mary Ann Evans, but she wrote under a man’s name because some people didn’t take women writers very seriously at the time), which is in part about an idealistic young woman with intellectual ambitions who chooses the wrong husband, a scholar who is upstanding but also pedantic, vain, and cold. I see something of myself (more than I want, really!) in both of those characters. Neither one is very much like me in any of the obvious ways that people in our time think so much about, but I can’t help but think that George Eliot kind of knew me (and a lot of other people) more than 100 years before I was born.

I hope you’ll find the same thing, because you have the right to lay claim to a much bigger piece of the world than the Bronx or the lives of your family. And you might meet yourself or someone you know in the unlikeliest of places: Moby-Dick, the RamayanaVanity FairA Frolic of His Own, Macbeth1919In the Penal ColonyInvisible ManThe Magic MountainThe Martian ChroniclesThe Gulag Archipelago, The Count of Monte CristoGravity’s RainbowMidnight’s ChildrenThe Little Prince, the poems of Walt Whitman or T. S. Eliot, or the world’s great histories and religious stories. You will, I hope, sometimes experience what I have experienced, reading something written by someone who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago in a faraway place — someone who doesn’t seem to be anything like me — and thinking: “How did he know?” And then you become friends, in a way, with those writers. And they are very good friends to have. There was a famous playwright in ancient Rome named Terence, who wrote: “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.”

You wrote that Blended expanded your universe. Good books do that, and it is a bigger world than you might think. You don’t just get to have New York and the world you already know, though New York is a lot to have — you get Narnia, too, and the lanes of Middlemarch and the decks of the Pequod, and whatever else seems right to you.

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