reading as an act of listening


Atticus Finch, that beloved and most fatherly-father, tells Scout in one of their heart-to-hearts that if you “can learn a simple trick you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” Atticus says. “Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

If considering things from another’s point of view leads to getting along better with all kinds of folks –which I think is true — then how do we do that? How do we climb into someone else’s skin? It seems to me the starting point is by listening.

When I step back and consider the world at present, what I see is a whole lot of people wanting to be heard. Some are members of great, disenfranchised groups literally crying out to be seen and heard…

detail from mlk mural atlanta georgia

Detail from MLK mural in Atlanta, Georgia

…mounting protests,

detail from leipzig germany freedom mural

Detail from Freedom mural in Leipzig, Germany

…raising voices together in common cause. Hear us!

street art by banksy from giveusart dot files dot wordpress

street art by Banksy found at giveusart dot files dot wordpress dot com

Individually, it’s plain that we long to be heard as well. We blog. We post. We tweet. We write open letters. We broadcast our opinions and positions and frustrations, explain ourselves, reveal ourselves. As a whole, we send billions of remarks out to the vast world, hoping someone out there – friend or stranger – will hear what we have to say. Maybe even like what we have to say.

Who is doing the listening?


painting by Kim Cogan

Who is listening well to all kinds of folks? Trying to climb inside another’s skin? Hoping to get along better with them? In an overwhelming sea of voices, how do we even begin turning towards a practice of listening? How can persons from privileged positions turn to listening rather than telling? How can people from opposing viewpoints learn to hear what the other is really saying?

Strangely, I think reading literature can help with that.

the library by jacob lawrence (1960)

The Library (1960) by Jacob Lawrence

One of the beauties of literature is its capacity to let us listen to other voices, voices we might never otherwise hear.

C.S. Lewis says, in his An Experiment in Criticism, that “Literature…is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is ‘I have got out.’ Or from another point of view, ‘I have got in.’ Pierced the shell of some other…and discovered what it is like inside…This, so far as I can see, is the specific value of good literature…it admits us to experiences other than our own…My eyes are not enough for me. I will see through those of others.”

Reading, in other words, is an act of listening.

Henri Matisse Woman Reading

Woman Reading by Henri Matisse

When we read, we hear another point of view, climb inside another skin, or shell. The opportunity to experience this other life ideally leads to empathy, understanding, getting along.

How do you like to be listened to? We’ve all experienced those listeners whose gaze is continually searching elsewhere. Present physically, but uninterested, hardly hearing a word we say.

Phil Bard by Alice Neel

Phil Bard by Alice Neel

Or listeners whose whole body language shouts that they’re just waiting to pounce, to show us where we’re wrong. Not listening to understand. Listening merely to challenge.

And then there are the precious few who listen to us well. Listen to what’s between our words and underneath them and behind them. Listen to our tone, our hesitations, our silences, our inarticulate floundering, interrupting to clarify, not to smack us down. Do you have a friend like that?

les chuchoteueses by rose aimee belanger

Les Chuchoteueses by Rose Aimee Belanger

When we read a book, we have the opportunity to listen well, listen completely, to what another voice is saying. We essentially cannot interrupt him, unless we close the book and walk away. The storyteller gets to say her whole piece, in just the order she wants to, with the words she carefully chooses without being rushed, putting in details and leaving out details as she pleases, finishing everything she has to say — without interruption. If we listen to an author the way Lewis listens, we may experience the wonder of “piercing the shell of some other.”

Reading this way can be a sort of training ground in listening.

Do we want to do this? Do I want to do this? At least as much as I want to be heard, myself?

Am I willing to listen well not only to the voices I know in advance I’ll like and agree with, but to voices largely unfamiliar, divergent, foreign to my experience?

I would like to grow in this area.

One of the impulses in writing my blog has been to judiciously expand the voices our children hear. I love finding books originally written in other languages than English, for instance.

Books that open doors into other cultures and other faiths.

from The Bicycle Man by Alan Say

from The Bicycle Man by Alan Say

That usher a wide range of people into our circle.

from A Chair for My Mother by Vera Williams

from A Chair for My Mother by Vera Williams

I like introducing new moms to some of the old, classic voices and introducing grandmothers to some of the outstanding new voices. And I can’t get over what a gift illustrators’ unique voices and divergent styles are, pointing me, again, to new ways of seeing, hearing, understanding, experiencing.

Illustration by Ekua Holms for Voice of Freedom

illustration by Ekua Holmes for Voice of Freedom

It makes me deeply glad to find a middle grade novel that voices an unusual perspective, with characters who inhabit my life long after I’ve finished the book, who take me by the hand and show me a life and heart and struggle so different from my own. Listening to Raymie Nightingale and Doug Swieteck and the Brown Girl Dreaming – well, it accomplishes so many things, but one of them is that I’m a little more aware of the array of stories, experiences, perspectives, motives, needs, fears, sorrows, joys, of people sharing my world.

We can, together, help ourselves and our children take Atticus’ advice to climb inside the skin of another in order to get along better with all kinds of folks. Imperfectly, but still…We can be better bridge-builders, better peacemakers, in a world of people striving, yearning to be heard. We can grow in this through the mysterious power of literature with its peculiar ability to teach us how to listen well.

from NCSU library

photo from NCSU library