Models Monday: The Seduction of Reading

When my friend Carmen first told me about Walter Dean Myers’s book The Blues of Flats Brown, I knew that I had to get it for my son. The story is about these two dogs, Flats and Caleb, who are the unfortunate wards of a junkyard proprietor named A.J. Grubbs. Flats and Caleb flee the junkyard after a terrible fight between Caleb and a dog Grubbs has recruited for the task. After he vows to have Flats fight the next day, the two dogs make haste before the fight can take place.

Flats and Caleb survive, with Grubbs hot on their trail, by singing and playing the blues. Eventually, Grubbs grants Flats his freedom when he hears Flats sing a song that reflects his understanding of Grubbs’s character. At that point, Myers writes one of my favorite lines in the story. Everyone thinks that Flats will stay in New York and make lots of money but Myers writes that what “they didn’t know was that Flats was a blues playing kind of dog, not a filthy rich kind of dog.” Flats has “another model by which to live.”

The Blues of Flats Brown by Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by Nina Laden

The idea that he’s not eager to dedicate himself to making money reminds me of an essay on representations of the poor where feminist critic bell hooks decides that representations of poor people in American popular culture show them spending all their time longing for money and the material things it can buy (reality t.v. now does the same thing). She contests this vision with memories of her poor and working class family members who valued creativity and integrity over money.

In The Blues of Flats Brown, Flats and Caleb’s friendship and their ability to sing the music they love means more than living in a big city and making lots of money. Myers notes that some people don’t believe it when they hear the story of two dogs playing the blues down on the waterfront in Savannah, Georgia and I’m sure in part, they don’t believe it because they cannot believe that Flats would choose to give up the chance to be rich. For Flats, wealth was an indulgence of a different order. It involved the time to be creative and to enjoy camaraderie through creation. The way I see it, then, Flats didn’t give up being rich. He exchanged one idea of it for another. Thus, Flats was rich.

Recently, Walter Dean Myers was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. I read a wonderful interview conducted with Myers in light of this award and he offered thoughtful words on the role reading plays in contributing to the kind of wealth that Flats enjoys. “It’s the people who read well,” Myers tells the interviewer, “who are going to live a good life.” I especially like the way he qualifies reading. It’s not just reading itself that will lead to a good life, but Myers stresses the importance of reading well. Reading well demands time, attention, discipline, and focus. It requires deliberateness. These are all qualities that the skill itself does not demand but this additional effort makes the experience worthwhile because, as Myers also notes, this sort of reading “will give you clues to how to live your life.”

Myers chose the banner “reading is not optional” to serve his campaign to encourage youth literacy. I have not won a single award for children’s literature so the Library of Congress (loc) won’t be calling me to ask about my banner choice but in the spirit of reading and imagining, if the loc were to call, I would tell them that my banner to encourage reading should say “reading is seductive.” I first thought about the seductiveness of reading after thinking through a passage in Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise. Consolata asks Mavis to help her in shelling pecans. As Mavis sets to work, Morrison writes:

Later, watching her suddenly beautiful hands moving at the task, Mavis was reminded of her sixth-grade teacher opening a book: lifting  the corner of the binding, stroking the edge to touch the bookmark, caressing the page, letting the tips of her fingers trail down the lines of print. The melty-thigh feeling she got watching her. Now, working pecans, she tried to economize her gestures without sacrificing their grace. (42)

If I were asked, I would play up how enticing reading can be. Of course the challenge would be trying to ensure that my message wouldn’t become vulgar, which seems to be the penchant in American culture. But for those of us who find reading seductive, the challenge of convincing others to be similarly enticed remains constant; so perhaps it would be a worthy campaign banner if the loc ever comes calling.



3 thoughts on “Models Monday: The Seduction of Reading

  1. Thanks for the M.F.K. Fisher reference–I will check that out. Yes! I always use that metaphor with my students. I talk in terms of them investigating texts that “feed” them. I ask them “what feeds you and what makes it a source of nourishment for you?” Reading is that crucial (like food) to writers, so I’m astounded when they say they don’t “really read” (no longer surprised by the fact of it, just pained by what it means: that, in terms of literacy, at best, I’ve got a bunch of “junk food” readers on my hands, and at worst, I have a bunch of “anorexics”–do they really consider it acceptable, or attractive even, to “starve” themselves?) What they are saying, it seems, is that outside of the reading they are “forced” to do for their courses, they elect not to read. And I wonder why, and am saddened that, they are so willing to deny themselves that kind of nurture–that they are not willing to work for that kind of “daily bread.”

    Your point about experiencing our humanity through reading reminds me of a conversation my friend and I were having about reading. I was talking about the pleasure I found in reading short stories, and she told me she doesn’t read short stories. She doesn’t like them because they’re short. When she reads for pleasure she reads only novels because she can spend so much more time with them, and she dreads when she’s coming to the end of a good novel–she’ll even go back and re-read chapters, so that she can delay having to finish it. That illustrates for me that sense of the “love and the hunger for it”…and warmth and security…the richness and sense of nourishment that she finds in reading. I experience that too. And sometimes, when the “pleasure and interest” are especially profound, as with rich food, I apportion and extend and savor that much more the experience. And isn’t that why we surround ourselves with books (those of us who insist on having private libraries)? Those collections are our “pantries,” our storehouses. We can anticipate the satisfactions to be found there.

  2. Beautiful passage from Morrison! Funny, today in my reading I came across this passage about reading (on a differently affirming note) in The Elegance of the Hedgehog:

    “As my hunger could not be assuaged by playing the game of social interaction–an inconceivable aim, given my social condition . . . –then it would be appeased by books. I touched one for the first time. I’d seen the older children in class look into books for invisible traces, as if they were driven by the same force and, sinking deeper into silence, they were able to draw from the dead paper something that seemed alive.

    “Unbeknownst to all, I learned to read. When the teacher was still droning away with the letters of the alphabets to my classmates, I had already been long acquainted with the solidarity that weaves written signs together, the infinite combinations and marvelous sounds that had dubbed me a dame in this place . . .”

    For the speaker–ignored and invisible as a child, a self-described “feeble child” who after attending school became “a hungry soul”–reading provided “pleasure and interest” (though she concealed it) in a life of limited material comfort and familial warmth. It was an awakening, a kind of salvation from her listless existence.

    1. These are beautiful lines from The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The role that school plays for the speaker here as well as in Morrison, in so far as Mavis remembers her teacher’s hands, strikes me in light of the role schools play in contemporary narratives of learning. Schools currently seem to be graveyards for the “pleasure and interest” to be found in reading. These passages suggest that they don’t have to be and they weren’t historically.

      The notion of “hunger” as it connects to reading also strikes me as an interesting juncture between these texts. In M.F.K. Fisher’s beautiful Foreword to The Gastronomical Me (Collected in The Art of Eating), she offers a response to persistent questions about why she writes about food. This is her response: “The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it…and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied…and it is all one.” Continuing she notes, “We must eat. If, in the face of that dread fact, we can find other nourishment, and tolerance and compassion for it, we’ll be no less full of human dignity.” Perhaps when we read, we experience our humanity in this very tolerable way.

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