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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

A moment of silence

It’s hard not to feel despair, isn’t it? The massacre in Paris is an assault on free expression everywhere; I’m afraid the same will prove true of the big-money takeover of Congress. Today I woke up to read that a father threw his five-year-old daughter off a bridge in St. Petersburg. It’s January, it’s deeply cold in New England, and it’s hard to see the way.

I hope to turn toward silence.

Not in a despairing, rejecting or hiding way — more in the spirit of those who’ve gathered in Paris, all over France, and around the world in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders. A moment of silence. More than a moment: a practice of seeking silence, of valuing silence. In a world of overwhelming noise — of constant information, clamoring opinions, deluging triviality — I hope, this year, that I can learn to live and write more from silence.

It isn’t easy. But I think it’s where our best hope lies.

The best writing seems to come, somehow, from some deep place where there is a silence. This is the kind of work I’ve always hoped to do, tried to do, and still hope and try to do. Silence is not emptiness; it is something to seek, to work toward. It can’t be found in our habitual busy-ness, and it's not emptiness. Emptiness is what comes scattered out of our constant grabbing at entertainment and diversion and relief, from all the noisy fragmenting of our attention. Silence, in contrast, is our best chance to be filled.  

Last night I finished reading The Lost Art of Reading, a short book by David Ulin, book critic at the Los Angeles Times. I marked a number of passages, all of which seem to add up to the same idea — which is, as Ulin puts it, this:

“To read, we need a certain kind of silence, an ability to filter out the noise. That seems increasingly elusive in our over-networked society, where every buzz and rumor is instantly blogged and tweeted, and it is not contemplation we desire but an odd sort of distraction, distraction masquerading as being in the know. In such a landscape, knowledge can’t help but fall prey to illusion, albeit an illusion that is deeply seductive, with its promise that speed can lead us to illumination, that it is more important to react than to think deeply, that something must be attached to every bit of time. Here, we have my reading problem in a nutshell, for books insist we take the opposite direction, that we immerse, slow down.”

Over the holidays I reread A Passage to India. This began with a gift certificate that my son gave me, to the Vermont Bookshop here in Middlebury. Right after Christmas I went eagerly to the bookshop, where I discovered Arctic Summer, a biographical novel by the South African Damon Galgut about E.M. Forster and how he came to write the greatest novel that grew out of British India. I love Kipling’s Kim more, personally, but A Passage to India is the greater story, the more deeply realized. And in tracing the novel's evolution, Arctic Summer portrays Forster’s long struggle to accept himself. He never, in his lifetime, came completely out of the closet, and the central wellspring of his finest book seems to have been his unconsummated, unfulfilled, ultimately lost love for an Indian man.

But however it grew, A Passage to India has a deep structure that centers on a certain echoing silence. The book's three sections are “Mosque,” “Caves,” and “Temple,” and they convey, in turn, the oneness, emptiness, and multiplicity that lay at the heart of what Forster found in India. In “Caves,” the longest and richest section, the Malabar caves are empty of adornment, empty of sanctity or legend, empty of anything but smooth-polished walls, darkness, and a strange formless echo that can unravel the visitor who isn’t prepared.

So the silence at the heart of the novel isn’t just that. The echo of one cave enters the mind of an English woman who does come unraveled inside it; and who, panicking, falsely accuses an Indian man of assaulting her in the cave. The echo won’t stop plaguing her until she faces the truth — that she was not a victim, that things aren't so simple — and states it in court, in defiance of the British authorities who want the accused man convicted and their sense of order restored. Then, rejected by her people in the near-riot of the aftermath, the woman finds the echo is gone. Surrounded by emotional noise, she can be quiet again. 

Just now our own sense of order is precarious. Our tendency is to reach toward restoring it through fear, through blaming and scapegoating; but we can’t. We all need a moment of silence, just now. Then, I think, we need to do our best to work from there.

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