We're here today to celebrate the act and art of reading and the impact of books on readers' lives. In my own life I have learned as much - or more - about the dimensions of the human heart and mind from great poems, short stories, novels, plays, and creative nonfiction as I have from psychologists, sociologists, historians, and other important scholarly practitioners.
And I'm talking not just about work that confirms what I already think I know - work that portrays events and situations that I too have personally experienced. I'm talking also, and maybe especially, about work that shows me lives and circumstances seemingly very different from my own, whether those are on the other side of town or on the other side of the world: lives I can’t help but participate in by virtue of being a fellow thinking, feeling human being on the planet.
A good writer always puts a good reader somewhere real. Good writing doesn't tell the reader about an experience; it allows the reader to have that experience—vicariously, yes…but as fully as possible. I believe that the strongest acts of imagination are, by their essential nature, strong acts of empathy. And "empathy" has got to be more than a politely intellectual word if we are to be truly compassionate global citizens; it's something we have to live with, take home to the heart.
Across time and space, I've sent my share of letters to authors - and I've composed many more that I never quite sent out of my head. The one thing they've all had in common is the notion of honest thanks - the idea that on some level, large or small, my life has been palpably changed, enriched by the reading of those words that, in the hands of the skilled and heart-wise writer, came together to make something so lastingly strong.
Emily Dickinson, the genuine mother of American poetry, famously said that she knew she'd read a good poem when she felt as if the top of her head had been taken off - a tad dramatic, maybe, but no less true for that. I think of it more in terms of modern physics: I've read a good book when I feel as if at least a few of my molecules have been rearranged; I'm not quite the same person I was before reading that book. And maybe that's not such a modern notion after all. The genuine father of American poetry, Walt Whitman, wrote in his expansive "Song of Myself: Every atom belonging to me / as good belongs to you."
That's both the premise and the promise, the inherent bond of writer and reader. We can't help but be in all of this together: the down-to-earth human condition. Each good book reaffirms that again, reminds us of our shared humanity in a time when so much static, blather, and downloading seems intent on trying to divide us. A good book shows us something new about our better selves and the world we really live in - a world it is our human, humane duty to sustain.