I’m being shown a good time, shlepped along to all sorts of exotic entertainments and parties — exotic to me, anyway. Yesterday I was taken to Chapel Hill’s 17th annual Cow Raising, an absurd pseudopagan ritual that involves winching two life-size fiberglass bovines netted in Christmas lights into the trees, while singing “cowrols” with rewritten, cow-related lyrics. (You hadda be there, and even then . . . it was one big in-joke that had ballooned over the years like one of those 100-acre underground fungi. It felt like being a new freshman in a high school most of whose occupants had been together since kindergarten.) Tonight I was taken to another annual ritual, a reading of an abridged A Christmas Carol in an Episcopal church by the novelists Allan Gurganus and Michael Malone.
Which brings me to my real subject. The performance/readings were delicious, but the real star of the show was Charles Dickens’s prose: witty, vivid, beguiling, moral. His words, as alive as the day he wrote them, buttonholed you, got up in your face, made you see, made you laugh, made you feel. There was a boy of eleven or twelve sitting next to my friend in the pew, his eyes glazed over. He’d admitted to her before the performance that he’d seen the Muppets’ version; she figured that was better than nothing, at least a place to start. But I pitied him for his inability to hop aboard the fast-moving train of densely packed, intricate words and be carried deep into his own imagination.
Young people are served up ready-made images. Even in videogames or MMORPGs, where they can assemble their own avatars, they are given ready-made, modular elements to choose from. As magical as modern media are, they’ve got nothing, but nothing, on mere words. No other medium recruits the recipient’s brain to the same degree, making you not just a consumer but a cocreator. When you read, you must dream up your own visuals and characters — no mere metaphor, because the process is as spontaneous and inexplicably fertile as dreaming. Reading exercises the muscle of the imagination like nothing else — and with such economy of means!
And with so little, great writing does even more. It engages you visually, emotionally, intellectually, and morally all at once. (Words can even evoke kinesthetic and tactile sensations, tastes, and smells.) It transmits the texture of experience as a multimodal whole, the way it is lived. What a magical medium, and how it elaborates your inner space and trains your power! I really do feel pity for people who don’t read — and gratitude to J. K. Rowling for almost singlehandedly saving this rare form of wizardry for another generation.