Saturday, November 25, 2017

When books become sanctuary

Two remarkable events for readers and word lovers occurred back to back just a few days ago—the National Book Awards dinner and the Miami Book Fair. The Book Awards’ elegant function was black tie. The Book Fair’s ebullient weekend street fair was awash in tank tops. Different as they were, both reminded me that in books, we find not just knowledge and ideas and the power to transport. Not only wisdom and solace. But also, sanctuary.

Sanctuary: from the Latin sanctus. A holy place, a sacred place. A place that offers asylum and immunity.

A refuge.

For those of us who feel whipsawed by the often dystopian (dystrumpian?) world we’ve inhabited this past year, both these events offered a reassurance that yes, things are not at all as they should be, but there are people who can give voice to this in ways that just might give hope to us.

Annie Proulx, in her acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s lifetime achievement award, railed against the “Kafkaesque time” we lived in. But she also said this:

“Somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing.”

The word of the weekend

Perhaps it was just the happenstance of the sessions I chose to attend at the Miami Book Fair (there are hundreds), but even so—the word of the weekend seemed to be empathy.

“What we lack is empathy for real people,” Chris Matthews told his audience. Norman Ornstein alluded to the need for it when he reminded his audience that true patriotism is “not negative nationalism.”

George Saunders, who also spoke of empathy, cautioned that “the enemy right now is despair.” To George Saunders belongs the prize-winning book, Lincoln in the Bardo. The term “bardo” draws on the Buddhist concept of a transitional state, which perhaps inspired this observation from the author: “I’m convinced our country is on the brink of a beautiful breakthrough.”

Please oh please, George, be right.

Joe Biden joined in…and Charles Dickens, too

To George Saunders also belonged the conversation with former Vice President Joe Biden. “You learn empathy,” the Vice President said, talking about his childhood. From his mother he learned this: “You’re defined by your courage and redeemed by your loyalty.” And from Joe Biden, we in the audience learned this: “Silence is complicity.”

Book Fair audiences also got a behind-the-scenes look at the new film, The Man Who Invented Christmas. It’s based on Les Standiford’s book, which found a book-to-film champion in Mitchell Kaplan.  Mitchell is the impresario behind the 33-year-strong Miami Book Fair, along with Dr. Eduardo Padrón, the president of Miami Dade College. He is also the owner of Books & Books, and now a film producer as well.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is its own backstory, of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol.  Lots of us at the fair “got pinned” with one of the big campaign-style buttons promoting the film. It featured a Dickens quote…but not the Tiny Tim one that would have been too easy.

Instead, it was in keeping with the E-word: 
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”
Or who offers sanctuary to mind and spirit.

In the root of “sanctuary” is also a verb, sancīre: to hallow. These two sacrosanct events for readers reminded me in the most uplifting of ways that one thing we can do is hallow our books.

But let’s give the last word to Annie Proulx, and her acceptance speech.
 “The happy ending still beckons,” she told us, “and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on.”