This passage by James Baldwin is more eloquent than anything I can come up with. So I’ll just footnote Baldwin by adding that the risks of reading are that you may be faced with a realization requiring more of you, one that challenges or enlarges the borders of the self, and as with any genuine encounter, you may be called upon to change, and I don’t mean giving up smoking or exercising more. I mean change how you think about the world, how you relate to your fellow earthlings, both human and non-human.
The rewards of reading are a deeper understanding of what it means to be human, a reawakening to the richness and mystery of imagination, and an empowering sense of humility. I don’s know exactly what an “empowering sense of humility” is, but it sounds like something I’d appreciate more of in myself and others.
Obviously, the risks of reading, like the risks of falling in love, are pretty much the same as the rewards.
We live in a culture abuzz with sales pitch, digital gossip, boosterism, and political scape-goating on behalf of those who benefit by feeding our biases and providing us with sound-bites in place of complexity, sucker-punch lines in place of profound and thoughtful discourse. If nothing else, reading well makes us harder to fool. Every hour spent reading poems, novels, any work rich in empathetic and imaginative language is a vote for the power of words to connect rather than divide, enrich rather than swindle.
Reading: risk and reward? Again, I’ll borrow from James Baldwin, a couple of sentences near the end of “Sonny’s Blues,” a story I’ve read maybe 30 times, and still find myself learning from:
“For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”
When we read we’re reminded of the scope and magnitude of that story, how far words have traveled to become our inheritance, and what wealth language contains when infused with intelligence and compassion, and ignited by imagination.