Reading past tyranny
Make-believe. Did I even need to be told? But mom . . . go on. The talking wolf. The tallest tree in the world where a small girl lived in a nest of amethysts. I tell the folks for whom I’ve designed a living room or home or even a store, to invite a storyteller in. Wallpaper your walls with the mirth and suspense of her stories. With the magic credulity of your own new belief.
Follow me for a minute or two down into the deepest and stoniest compartments of our minds. Down to where our descent eventually ends. Bones lie around. Winds whisper from the twin eternities of past and future. Time no longer exists. Symbols are engraved in the wall that any person on earth would recognize. A circle, a cross, a sword, a kiss. A fierce, primordial energy simmers through the black air.
You grasp at once, as scary as it is, that this rocky boudoir of unconsciousness shapes and fables everything above.
Our terrors. Our passions. Our symbols. Our arts. Our affiliations. Our gods and our un-gods. What draws this (un)consciousness upward, equipping from that furniture store of bones and shadows the narrow apartment of one conscious mind?
Stories, of course, do that–legends, myths, bedtime stories that evoke an unimaginable past. You find them in Homer’s Odyssey; you find them on a grocery store receipt. All, in their ways, hint at a secret self of oceanic complexity against which our everyday lives seem almost naive.
And yet things go so wrong. As Mark Twain observed, charlatanism, if relatively harmless, is a charming American folkway. If not, how lethal it can grow. Stories become a republic of lies.
Whitman observed how quickly we suppress the dark, the difficult and the free within us. The ambiguous is bolted down to the hard, binary laws of groupthink, soft-focus metaphor flips into the irascible ‘facts’ of party, church and leader. And it doesn’t end there: what we suppress eventually turns septic. Addictions follow. Ours, as Gabor Maté points out, is a nation of tricked-out myths (see recent election) and consequent addictions.
But stories can heal what stories destroy. Here I declare my institution of choice: the library. In passing I point to the new Seattle library, which (pre-pandemic) was more than books on shelves (that too) but a whole, step-off-the-sidewalk social university of coffee and conversation and the multiple enlightenments of image and chance, text and sotto voce commotion. A citizen lab with chocolate biscotti.
Particularly in the aftermath of the Gilded Age, alluring as gold may be, we as a country decided a new gentry was not what we wanted (any more than many of us want a Lexus gentry overtaking Asheville right now). We wanted democracy. Large. Equitable. Jeffersonian. Lecture societies arose, such as Chautauqua and the Lyceum Circuit. The museum and library were established as places where anyone could read, relax, look and learn––a Whitmanesque island; citizenship incubators. A rotten and conspiratorial lie could not get far before a good book stopped it.
A library un-adulterates all the corruptions we add to that artesian force of story. No, not every book in a library is good. But unlike the internet, the vast composite of books in a library stands for the best, the most inquisitive, in all of us. It stands for reason, for the soul, for the colorful reaches of spirit. It’s just plain hard to find a book that elevates the credulous messianism of a tyrant. Some books are left; some are right; some are center. They embody the glorious fact that any democracy depends on the conversant tensions and aspirations of a pluralistic society. They keep the controversies flowing. They keep our darkest fairy tales intact.
They make us the admirable, song-telling citizens all of us can be.