It seems to me some days that literature is teetering on the brink of obsolescence. YouTube and Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and 900 cable channels are only part of the problem. I am part of the problem, I think. I’m not doing nearly enough to defend good writing. So I thought I’d take a few minutes to remind myself why quality writing still deserves defending.
To my mind, the most compelling virtue of literature is that, short of telepathy, it’s our only means of inhabiting someone else’s thoughts word for word. The other arts allow us to witness or empathize with the artist — but there’s always a separation. We stay, more or less, in our own heads as we watch or listen.
To write, however, is to think directly onto the page. The quality of writing is determined by the clarity, honesty, and meaning of those thoughts. So when we read quality literature, we seamlessly move inside the writer’s mind.
To add to the magic, if it’s necessary to time travel or leapfrog around the globe to enter that mind, literature gives us that power, too. Just read this:
Here I am with a babel of noise going on all about me. I have lodgings over a public bathhouse. .. When the strenuous types are doing their exercises, swinging weight-laden hands about, I hear the grunting as they toil away… When my attention turns to a less active fellow who is contenting himself with an inexpensive massage, I hear the smack of a hand pummeling his shoulders. Then add the hair remover, continually giving vent to his shrill and penetrating cry in order to advertise his presence, never silent unless he is plucking someone’s armpits and making the client yell for him!
But by now I have so steeled myself against all these things that I can force my mind to become self-absorbed. There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within.
You might think this was written by a guy in West Hollywood or the Castro, but actually Seneca wrote those words in Rome at the time of Nero. Seneca’s been dead for nearly 2000 years! Yet through his writing, we can still enter his living mind and experience. Writing really does keeps the human spirit alive.
Another virtue of well-chosen words is that they are “mightier than the sword.” On several occasions while I was President of the writers’ organization PEN USA, I had the honor of meeting Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist who wrote passionately and beautifully on behalf of both civilians and soldiers caught up in the brutality of the war in Chechnya. In 2002 PEN honored Anna here in LA. Almost exactly four years later she was murdered in her Moscow apartment building. She was 48 years old.
This is an excerpt from her book A Small Corner Of Hell:
The tea got cold long ago. We’re drinking it in a café at Magas Airport in Ingushetia. I’m ashamed to look Colonel Yandiev in the eye. It’s the third year in a row that I’m ashamed.
As a result of a criminal blunder of the Moscow bureaucracy during the storming of Grozny in 1999, someone had to risk his life to save eighty-nine elderly people from a retirement home that was abandoned under the bombing. Colonel Yandiev was the only one of the hundreds of Russian colonels and generals gathered near Grozny to say “yes.” With six of his officers, he crawled for three days to the neighborhood where the lonely, hungry elderly were dying.
Only one old woman died… the colonel was able to save all of the others from bullets and shells flying from both sides of the crazed battle, as if each of them were his own mother or father.
“To this day, they send me letters on holidays,” Yandiev says, very quietly. “They thank me,” Yandiev insists, continuing to stir the sugar he already stirred long ago in the cold tea. “I don’t need anything else.”
But I need for there to be something else. I am a citizen, and for this reason I want to know why the colonel still has not received the title of Hero of Russia that he was nominated for early in 2000. What do you need to do in Russia, the way things are now, to not only be a hero, but to be officially acknowledged as one?
In Anna’s case, what you had to do was write. She is revered as a hero not only in Russia but throughout the world. Her written words keep her alive. They carry on her fight. They confront us with her conscience, her witness, her wisdom and her truth.
But writing does not only belong to the dead. Far from it! Recently I heard a reading by some of the brave new voices of teen writers from PEN in the classroom… Through their words, those of us in the audience who were older became young again. Those of us who grew up a world away felt what it is to grow up today in LA. Their words transported us into their lives, their thoughts and their feelings.
Literature is an endangered magic. And that’s why I urge everyone I know to please keep reading. Buy books. Frequent your local bookstores and libraries. Please let’s not let literature become obsolete.
[Delivered in 2009 when accepting West Hollywood’s Algonquin Award]
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- Seneca, Politkovskaya, and the Endangered Magic of Literature - May 16, 2016