The Op­ti­mist’s Daugh­ter

In books, I trust

Country Life Every Week - - Another Country -

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.

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