Tess Goodman | 6 March 2017
“The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library […]. The library was open, unending, free. Slowly, I was discovering myself. […] I felt myself in motion, still directed toward the total possession of my body, but by some other route which I could not before then have imagined.” (Coates 48)
In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel describes learning the word “lesbian” from the dictionary at age thirteen (74). As she ages, she finds one book after another that explore this word, leading eventually to two realizations: one, that she “could actually look up homosexuality in the card catalog,” and two, that she herself is a lesbian (75). For her, the former discovery is the catalyst for the latter, which she calls a “revelation not of the flesh, but of the mind” (74). Her reading reveals a larger world, bringing her into touch with herself.
In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes his arrival at Howard University as a young man, baffled and battered by racism. He confronted his confusion through a “simple ritual”: every morning, he would go to the university library and “request, three call slips at a time, the works of every writer [he] had heard spoken of in classrooms or out on the Yard” (46). His reading revealed a vast community of other black thinkers, asking similar questions about what it meant to be black, and finding different answers. The clamor of so many voices was a difficulty: Coates writes, “I felt myself at the bridge of a great ship that I could not control” (47). But he adds that “still and all I knew that we were something, that we were a tribe—on one hand, invented, and on the other, no less real” (56).
Both Coates and Bechdel find paths to self-determination in the library. Through their reading, they locate their identities in the context of larger communities—communities to which they belong, and communities from which they are excluded. Their accounts reveal the deep emotionality of intellectual reading. For them, the most profound personal traumas can only be addressed through the rigor of good writing. In the end, they cannot resolve those traumas by reading or by writing. Bechdel still grapples with family traumas caused (in part) by her father’s sexual repression. Coates still struggles with what he calls the Struggle, trying to live free in a racist society as a black man. But their reading brings them into contact with other writers considering the same questions. In libraries, they find anchors on the great sea they must navigate.
Moreover, both Coates and Bechdel unite the physical with the intellectual, overcoming the ancient tradition of the mind-body divide. For them, reading is not an academic avoidance of their bodies or their feelings. The questions they bring to the library are questions of the body: Coates is asking about race, Bechdel about sexuality. Coates writes: “Our world is physical. Learn to play defense—ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body” (33). And yet, of course, his book is written for the head to read. Bechdel’s first sexual experience with a woman takes place in a bed strewn with books, which she calls “a novel fusion of word and deed” (80). For both of these writers, the intellectual pursuits of reading and writing are part of a holistic practice that helps them understand themselves and their relations to the world. Intellectual thought helps them live true.
By writing, they offer one great gift: they add to the literary communities that nurtured them. Their books provide new anchors for other readers. These bookish communities are protean and pluriform, for I, too, can join them—not as a black man or a gay woman, but as a reader. With these other readers, I can ask: how does intellectual thought help us find truth and freedom? Might life itself be a fundamentally intellectual activity? How does reading help us live?
P.S. We all need books. Support your local library.
Tess Goodman is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Edinburgh, an alumna of the University of Virginia, and a quondam employee of Rare Book School. She is curious about everything to do with book history, bibliography, libraries, and travel. Her current research focuses on how tourists in nineteenth-century Scotland used books—as both narratives and objects—to hold on to intangible memories.
Article edited by Dylan Taylor, Harry Leonard, and Paulina Drégvaité.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. London: Jonathan Cape, 2006.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing, 2015.