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I discovered Emily Bronte in 1992. I wasn’t the first to discover her and I won’t be the last, but my initial reading of Wuthering Heights during my 17th year was as marvelous a discovery as any. See, Wuthering Heights was written for me. Sure, you’ve read it, too, but I daresay it’s a different book for me than it is for you and that’s why people continue to read it and why it will continue to generate discussion. C.S. Lewis probably expressed the reason that we read most eloquently and succinctly, “We read to know we are not alone.”
One of my most prized possessions is a Riverside Shakespeare with my brother’s name written on the inside upper left hand cover. He used it in college, and then loaned it to me for my Shakespeare class ten years later. Now that he is no longer with us, I love to imagine him reading the same scenes and turning through the same thin, crisp pages. He and I, along with 500 years worth of readers, are connected through this text.
I had a similar experience of connection when I traveled to England with the Trinity Episcopal choir and sang evensong service at the Ely Cathedral for a week. While processing to the choir, I noticed how the stone below me was worn into a pattern created by hundreds of singers before me. Using the same liturgical text and, in some cases, music I was able to participate in this centuries old conversation.
Art, music, and literature connect us to each other and, I would argue, to something transcendent (whatever that is or isn’t I will leave for you to ponder). Libraries have a vital part to play in facilitating these conversations. I recently read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and in the last 40 pages had my “library faith” reinvigorated. The novel’s title refers to a tiny 350-year-old Dutch painting that attracts, torments, and comforts the protagonist, Theo Decker. We don’t fully understand Theo’s obsession with the painting. Theo doesn’t quite grasp it himself, but we know that it sustains him through trauma, grief, loneliness, and numerous self-destructive behaviors. It is a line thrown out to him throughout his life.
Toward the end of the novel, Hobie, who has been Theo’s mentor and father-figure discusses what he calls “fateful objects”—those that, for whatever reason, captivate and inspire. These are the objects of art that “whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey Kid. Yes you... I was painted for you.” As I read this, I couldn’t help but think of the stories that have been fateful objects in my own life—whispering from the stacks—I was written for you. Just for you. Hobie goes on to explain that the reason we love a piece of art, an antique chair, or—I would add—a novel is not because it is universal, but because it is personal.
So, I’m going to continue saying that I discovered Emily Bronte, Louise Erdrich, Michael Cunningham, and Jeanette Winterson. And, if you happen to think these authors wrote something just for you, you’ll find no argument from me.