In my previous post, Anne Frank and I, Behind the Bookcase I wrote about my experience visiting Amsterdam. How I passed through a small door hidden by a bookcase. Behind that bookcase, the Franks began a life of hiding which allowed Anne to escape Nazi ideology for a time.
Literature I read as a youth, not least Anne Frank’s diary, provided a hiding place for me as well.
What was I hiding from?
I think in many ways, the physical experience of reading was its first hiding place for me. The quietness. The stillness. The way each word could be sounded out, read again. The knowledge that no eyes were upon me, no judgments being made, no one was counting my intelligence or worth. It was just me, curled on a couch, watching silently as characters went about their lives. Despite the fact that I did well at sports (I was about a foot taller than all the other kids early on) and was in many ways a boisterous tom-boy, I have a deep affinity for the actual practice of reading stretching back as far as I can remember…perhaps even to the faint images I can conjure of snuggling next to my mother or father as they read me Donald Crews. I find it a little ironic that as an editor I have spent so much time and effort to make reading “come alive” for kids, when it was the relative deadness, the long moments of quiet contemplation that first endeared reading to me. I remember devouring Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery all of one Saturday in fourth grade. My parents must have fretted over the fact that I stayed in my bed nearly all day, but I don’t recall them criticizing me about it. It was a vocabulary building exercise, after all.
Of course, there were so many other ways reading was a hiding place. It was a relief from the boredom of long summer hours. A place I could explore on my own, without the helpful suggestions of parents or teachers. It was a place of recreation, of brilliant worlds that sparkled and glittered and shattered the line of my horizon.
Paramount among the myriad reasons I found literature to be a hiding place was this: it was neither true nor false. In a world of multiplication tables and spelling bees with beady-eyed teachers just waiting to pounce (that’s for you, Grumps), stories were never wrong in the same way an addition problem could be. Some books were better than others, to be sure, and I found both reading and writing to be subjects I had to work hard at, subjects I had to rise to excel in. But I was comfortable with the inexactness of it; I rather liked feeling my way toward an idea rather than pushing meat through a grinder (i.e. long-division).
Yet for all its seeming transcendence of truth, literature conveyed a nobility of moral vision unlike any other subject I encountered in school. From Dr. Suess to John Steinbeck to Richard Wright, pride and death and suffering which was so normal in my history and science classes were presented with a horror and moral outrage that I felt in my own experience—especially during my grandfather’s last years struggling with cancer. Ideas about empathy, compassion, and how I was to treat those who were different from me—ideas seared into my heart while I read Anne Frank’s diary—were never up for debate.
Of course, I didn’t know any Nazis. I knew very little about the complex cauldron of social and scientific theories that converged to produce the Holocaust. Instead, I interpreted Anne Frank’s story in light of my own experiences. Like many adolescents, I lived under the weight of a million arbitrary rules of coolness—like wearing the right sneakers or not bringing your lunch. Somehow, seeing that someone so beautiful and clever as Anne Frank could be cut off from others too and experience alienation, seeing that she could be undervalued because of some undesirable trait—somehow that made me feel like I wasn’t so strange after all. I felt sympathy for her, and in seeing her value, I sensed that maybe I had value, too.
Of course, I had felt the damning effects of pride, too. I remember one particular moment when I saw the stupidity of human ideas of excellence. Once at a May field day, I managed to win many of the competitions. I felt like an Olympian, clutching my little red and blue ribbons. I didn’t just feel good. I felt important. I felt like I mattered. I felt justified. But then I noticed another young man in my class, Paul. Paul had braces on his legs, and he couldn’t run. In fact, he could barely walk. Was I really worth so much more than him? It wasn’t just guilt, which is what so many conservatives think liberalism is about. Rather, it was a reality check against the flesh and the pride of life.
Through the books I read in adolescence, I was brought to ask a more general question: How how can we hold any standard of behavior—any ideal—without dehumanizing those who don’t measure up? I felt better than others because I was white. Then I read Anne Frank’s story and To Kill a Mockingbird, and suddenly I knew how ridiculous that was. I based my worth on whether I had money. But then I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and that idol came crashing down. I believed I was more righteous than others. Then I read The Scarlett Letter. (And that was what I learned in high school.) On and on it went, until most of my inherited categories of reality (like race, class, gender, nature, language, and self) had been demolished.
Behind the Bookcase is really a description of this journey. And over the following weeks, I’ll look at each particular category and tease out how one book represented the literary curriculum in that area. But for now I’ll just say that against the scientist who worships the laws of nature, against the religious hypocrite who thinks he has kept the moral law from his youth, I was taught to dissect the rules of life—particularly the “construction” of our Western worldview—and trace a singular thread: compassion through creativity as the prime virtue. (Just as an aside, it was this belief that allowed me to live a life of hedonism in college. In doing so, I hadn’t just tossed out my love of virtue. Rather, I believed that I was living out the virtuous—i.e. compassionate and creative—life.)
What then was I hiding from? I think the answer is pretty simple: the perversity of who people really are and the myriad ways we don’t measure up.
As a Christian today, I don’t believe literature offers an adequate hiding place. Only in Christ do I believe it is possible to forgive a sinner without destroying the law, and with it, the possibility of compassion or any meaning at all.
But if the literature of my youth gave me one gift, it was a hunger for more than man’s idea of justice and self-worth. As Ghandi put it, “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” I never gave up on my questions about philosophy, Truth, and what a just society would look like. But they were secondary issues.
What I wanted most, not just for myself, but for my dying and dead grandfather, for the uncool kids who were pushed around at my school, for the cool kids who couldn’t see their own pride, for the scientists and the atheists and rock musicians doing drugs, for the Christians and TV evangelists, for the starving masses in Africa and Asia, for Anne Frank and even her Nazi murderers, was a hiding place. And I turned to stories—Biblical and otherwise—to find it.
We each bring our own sensibilities to fiction, and perhaps literature had a different effect on you as a child. Maybe even the opposite one. I would be very interested to know if anyone else felt that literature hit them with this sort of message, or if some other insight stands out. What were some of the main ideas you took away from the books you read as an adolescent?
Further Redeemed Reading: Behind the Bookcase: In Search of a Hiding Place (pt. 1), At Home with Anne of Green Gables (pt. 2), Anne Frank and I, Behind the Bookcase (pt. 3). You can find other series on the site at Dear Reader…