The Optimist’s Daughter
In books, I trust
LET me say from the start that I don’t believe that people who read are more socially competent and personally effective, more self-reliant and trustworthy, less likely to go to pieces under stress, more moral and kinder than people who read only Twitter, text messages and street signs.
I do tend to think that readers are more likely to be able to communicate their ideas and ideals. Indeed, they are more likely to have ideals and convictions that come from experience, but are honed from books. Some books are good, some are great, some disappointing, some trashy, some unforgettable. Books, like life, are a lottery, but, as a recent American President admitted, in his sometimes lonely youth, they were ‘worlds that were portable’. Books were the companions that helped him to figure out who he was, what he thought and what was important.
Times are turbulent enough without inflicting another diatribe on my faithful readers, so I may be pushing my luck when I suggest that the new American President’s gravest flaw, perhaps the origin of all his flaws, is that he does not read. I wasn’t surprised to learn that he hadn’t made his way through a book from start to finish since high school. Then came the revelation from Marie Brenner in Vanity Fair, verified by ghostwriters, ex-wives and fastidious factcheckers, that on his bedside table (to be fair, in the bedside drawer) was a volume of Hitler’s speeches. Wherever you stand on the political divide, this is a heck more troubling than a refusal to produce tax returns.
At times in my life, I have used books to shut out the real world. I’ll always be grateful that my drug of choice during adolescence was literature: Daphne du Maurier, Sinclair Lewis (Main Street’s Carol Kennicott made me a lifelong idealist, but also determined not to live my life in Gopher Prairie). Somewhere between Middlemarch and The Golden Notebook, I decided my spiritual home was England, but it was the 19th-century Romantics who got me here: an assignment to write a television series based on their exhilarating, rebellious, melancholy and brave lives. I am forever grateful to Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley and Coleridge.
If it was English literature that gave me the ‘nose’ and the instincts of a gun dog that follows the wild turkey across the swamp, it was Southern literature that I turned to once I lived in England. When you are a child of the Mississippi Delta, William Faulkner’s fictionalised county Yoknapatawpha (the accent is on ‘taw’; it’s a Chickasaw Indian word meaning ‘water runs slow through flat land’) was too close in time and place to reality. Now that I live in the flatlands of East Anglia, reading Eudora Welty is like waking up in my own bed after a long journey.
My ‘Desert Island’ book would be the Library of America volume of Welty’s novels. It includes her masterpiece, The Optimist’s Daughter, the story of a young woman who rediscovers the world of her Southern childhood when she returns home to be with her dying father. When I first read it, I couldn’t understand the ‘optimism’ of a father who would leave the family home to his new young wife and not his daughter. It took a second reading, years later, to see that his legacy to his daughter was an understanding of the meaning of life and the values that were formed and nourished inside the house.
‘It is history, written in plays, novels, poetry, even that teaches us to hope
Critics of Barack Obama accused him of being aloof, too intellectual. Those critics won’t miss the poetry and the mastery of language in speeches that evoked the King James Bible, Shakespeare, the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. I will miss the optimism that comes from a view of the world that attaches the mule of language to the wagon of history. I’ll miss the President who gives his daughter a Kindle filled with books he wants to share with her. I’ll miss the President who said that Shakespeare’s plays show the human condition entirely: ‘Its follies, cruelties, and mad blunders, but also its resilience, decencies and acts of grace.’
Tempting as it is to spend the next four years hunkered down, reading books on my bedside table that have got stuck there and re-reading old friends that make me feel better, I know that this is no time to retreat to the shelter of a world that only allows entry to the likeminded. More than ever, now is the time to challenge the allpervasive, dystopian view of the world— everything is terrible and will only get worse— that frightens voters and makes them crazy.
I think it is my (our) job to preach the gospel of optimism (even on days it feels deluded). These are the good old days— they’re the only days we’ve got. It is history, written in plays, novels, poetry, even COUNTRY LIFE, that teaches us to hope. Water runs slow through flat land, but we need to keep faith. And keep reading.