My mother used to say, tell me who your friends are, and I can tell who you are. Or something similar to this, only in Italian. Associations have always been important in making us feel part of the group, accepted and loved and protected. I go a step further: tell me what you read, and I can tell what you think of yourself in a deep sense, the kind of person you really admire.
That brings me to books, the associations we make with ideas, the associations across time, across places and geography, across languages and cultures, across tribes. Books, and music and film, all tell a great deal about who we are.
I belong to a reading group here in town with nine members. So, during the year, we read nine books together, and share our thoughts with each other. WE also discuss other books we read on the side, as in 'if you liked this, then...'. We do not view things the same way, nor do we make ourselves read something we don't like at all. It has happened that I chose "Magic Seeds" by Naipaul thinking everybody was going to be just amazed at the depth and breadth. I was wrong. Perfectly intelligent beings can disagree on what makes a book good. Obviously, I was crushed. How could anybody dismiss this book?
In a few weeks, the group will discuss another book I chose, "What is the What" by Dave Eggers, a biographical account of the Lost Boys of Sudan. The book is over 400 pages, and my guess is that it is too heavy of a subject for most of the group. So, why did I choose it?
We choose books for the same reasons we choose different friends at different times in our lives. We want to be adventourous in our youth: we choose friends who dare to break the rules, dare to stretch their wings. WE may not have the same courage but we admire that quality in others, and hopefully, by association, it will rub on us.
At this stage in my life I no longer have to maintain my professional skills, choosing books that help me understand teaching and learning, children and their special needs. I'm hungry for adult themes, and sweeping vistas. I want to learn about the world and my place in it. I want to understand, and learn about others' understanding, too. I want to read books that tell me what the news doesn't cover, what the history books will gloss over.
"What is the What" will do that, and much more. It will remind me that I, too, was an immigrant, confused and hopeful, frustrated with my progress. This is both a private story and a public outcry for action and compassion and understanding that everything in this modern world is inextricable.