Tuesday, May 24, 2005


Yesterday I found this quote from an interview with writer Ali Smith, which immediately demanded a place over my cluttered desk:

"Stories can change lives if we're not careful. They will come in and take the shirts off our backs. Tell the right stories and we live better lives."

What a wonderful way to describe the power of story: as something with the ability to strip you naked and leave you rattled inside your own skin. Whether you've been the victim of a robbery that leaves you more impoverished than you were before, or a gift with the power to transform your life--well, that depends on the book you chose to open.

Frequently, we shy away from discussing the impact that stories have on their readers, and perhaps for good reasons. Historically, such assessments have led to book bans and burnings. A book that fed the dark side (in someone's estimation) was not simply a book to be put aside, it was a book to be destroyed, forbidden, turned to ash. And the freedom, in which art thrives,was often destroyed with it. No, we don't want to go back to that. We never want to go back.

But our aversion to censorship doesn't mean that both readers and writers don't have a responsibility to create stories that exalt human consciousness, rather than debase it. When we open a book and read those critical first pages, deciding whether the narrative holds our interest, let us also consider if this is a story we want to enter our bloodstream, our heart, the thoughts and actions we carry forward after closing it.

If this is indeed a world of meaning, rather than an empty universe in which to do little more than act out shallow survival skills, then every conversation we participate in, every film we allow to wash over us in the dark, every book we open in the sanctuaries of our bedrooms, is an invitation: Come in. If we are choosey about who we allow in the front door of our house, shouldn't we be even more careful about who we invite into that hall of mirrors: our mind?

When my sons, Gabe and Josh were small boys, I undertook a project with them. Each night before bed, I would read a chapter from a classic novel. while they sprawled Huck Finn, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield.

But the novel that we all remember when we talk about that time was Hugo's masterpiece, Les Miserables.
The boys loved the hero's superhuman strength so much that I once caught them playing a game they called "Jean Valjean" in the back yard, pretending to save one another from beneath a fallen carriage.

But it was Jean's goodness and humility that made the three of us weep together through the closing pages of the novel. And it is those moments when we cried for the unheralded death of one good man, that subtly changed us, that whispered to our blood, and whisper to us still, inviting us into the better life that Ali Smith describes.

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