Reading in a Time of Disruption

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lit up aerial view of the United States at night  Excerpted from the introduction of the Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 5out now.

Writer and literary critic Sergio Pitol makes the claim that “[w]orks of art express . . . the best energy humans are capable of producing.” For Flannery O’Connor, literature is a particular human achievement: “ . . . in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells. Fiction is the most impure and the most modest and the most human of the arts. It is closest to man in his sin and his suffering and his hope.”

It’s little surprise that as the ground beneath our feet has shifted this past year, the serious readers I know have all turned to literature. Where else would we go when everything we’ve taken for granted is now in doubt, and our very sense of reality is challenged by circumstance?

Our reasons for reading in a time of disruption vary, just as our reasons for reading at any time vary, but one thing doesn’t vary: literature remains the single most significant means of connecting with another individual consciousness across time and space. On the page, we encounter our most thoughtful, insightful contemporary writers as well as the vast intelligence of writers from the past, the best of whom remain not only relevant but essential to our understanding of what it means to be human. When we meet the other on the page, we find, among many things, much needed perspective about our own time and place.

Though efficiency experts might belittle the idea, literature makes an argument for the messy, the irrational, the unexplainable, the deviant. Literature goes beyond history to unearth the odd, the particular, the outlier, and the nonconforming. It enacts philosophy; it expresses those experiences and feelings most real and meaningful to us that cannot be shared anywhere else; literature lays bare the soul of a character as a means to expose what matters most. Or, as John Williams says, it “allows you to know someone other than yourself.”

It seems stories are very often about characters being tested in a time of crisis. Perhaps those of us who are habitual readers of literature have been practicing how to face our own crises. By reading stories about how others have reacted, often imperfectly, to change, we feel less alone in our private struggles. Scholar Edith Hamilton says of the ancient Greek tragedian Æschylus that he grasped “‘the antagonism at the heart of the world.’ . . Mankind . . . fast bound to calamity by the working of unknown powers, committed to a strange venture, companioned by disaster . . . The fullness of life is in the hazards of life.” We read alone, as we live alone, but in the solitude of the page we find solace in one another.

In the world of literature, there are no prefab answers to the riddles of life. On the contrary, literature makes explicit the complexity and nuance of our brief existence. Literature does not comfort so much as it confronts. It does not give us a roadmap or serve as a guide; rather, by foiling our desire for easy answers and quick formulas for success, maybe it teaches us to be tolerant of ambiguity. Mostly, though, if we are readers, we are never truly lonely. Literature, like a great banquet, is a space of bountiful abundance. We are invited to join a feast of wide-ranging, wildly diverse conversation, full of wit, gaiety, wisdom, and sorrow. We take our fill. There is more available. Everything is in a continual process of regeneration and renewal. We may lose heart in the moment, but around that table stories remind us we’re part of something ongoing.

I’m sure that my reading this past year for the Solos series was influenced in subtle ways by the prevailing mood of the country; I was guided mostly, however, by my sense of an individual writer’s commitment to delving deep, to facing with honesty and courage the demands made by the story he or she is telling. I was not looking for a particular kind of story, and I have no prescription for what makes a given story endure in my mind; instead, I approached each manuscript with openness, willing to follow the writer who persuaded me with his or her mastery. Once there, I was often surprised; at times, I put my emotional comfort at risk; I encountered people and places I hadn’t thought I cared about; I discovered exquisite details, scenes that touched me; and all for what I’ll call the truth of the story.

I hope our collected Solos will give you a few hours entertainment, and perhaps a little deeper insight into our common humanity. Amidst the relentless fearmongering and finger-pointing of this past year, I experienced each of these Solos as a little reprieve, not from reality—quite the opposite—but from the clamor of undigested information. In their own ways, each has given me a more complete understanding of the world and the many ways of being in it.