The Power of Books
Parul Sehgal. Photo courtesy of Ms. Sehgal
In honor of the National Book Festival this weekend, we asked literary critic Parul Sehgal to reflect on the power of books in her life. An editor at The New York Times Book Review, Ms. Sehgal previously worked as the books editor at NPR.org, and as a senior editor at Publishers Weekly. Her work has appeared in publications such as O Magazine, Time Out New York, The Irish Times, and Bookforum. In 2010, she received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, and in 2008, she received the Pan African Literary Forum’s OneWorld Prize for fiction.
We are not supposed to be in the study. The books live in the study. The study is dim and fragrant and forbidden. The books are forbidden. We are not supposed to be in the study.
We are always in the study. We do our best reading in those years when the books are forbidden and my mother sleeps. A sensible woman, she warned us early and often that Novels are a waste of time and Some books are dangerous if read too early and don’t you have homework to do?
She says this while maintaining a wonderfully idiosyncratic library full of dangerous books. She’d been a professor of political science back in Delhi; so naturally, Plato, Mill, Marx, and Hegel are well represented. But so are Sartre and Gide, D.H. Lawrence, Muriel Spark, Graham Greene. So are Sue Miller, Ira Levin, Irving Wallace, Irving Stone, and lots of grisly true crime. And all the staples of the Indian bookshelf: Freedom at Midnight. R.K. Narayanan, Ruskin Bond, Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs, mountains of moldering Penguin paperbacks.
We had no system; we were governed only by access and appetite. Jeanette Winterson describes reading her way from A to Z through a local library in her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. How charming, how fastidious. My sister and I, first generation immigrants, temperate in all things save our book lust, grabbed what we could; we gobbled and glutted. We’d pick up books at random and as long as we could understand the first few sentences, we’d begin, always with a hope that this was the book we’d been warned about. One especially desultory month when I was nine and she eight, we worked our way through Oscar Wilde’s plays, Lee Iacocca’s memoir, The World of Suzy Wong, a rereading of In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (mainly for the photos of a young Imelda Marcos), and Machiavelli’s The Prince (not quite the historical romance we had hoped).
“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery,” wrote George Orwell in his essay “Why I Write.” Joan Didion took it a step further in an essay with same title. She argued that very act of “setting words on paper” is “an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” Both establish as the reader as passive, even as the victim. Both are wrong. Some of us read rapaciously and with mysterious agendas of our own. And I’d hazard that the more we---or our communities---have been disenfranchised or humiliated, the harder we’ll read when we come to books. Because we’re not just reading, are we? We’re spying. We’re reading ourselves into societies and narratives that have excluded us. We’re trying to get inside your head.
Breaking into my mother’s library was just the beginning. Books are all about trespass; they deliver what romantic love and citizenship only promise. They let you enter other consciousnesses, cultures, conversations. Would my sister and I have read the way we did if we hadn’t felt our difference so keenly, if our experience of smallness, femaleness, foreignness hadn’t been so painful? I’m not sure. The racism we encountered was imaginative and energetic. But the study smelled like vanilla. So much was explained and restored to us in that dim room. W.E.B. DuBois put it best: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas…I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”
No scorn, no condescension. We read first for distraction then consolation then for company. And finally to be worthy of the company we kept.