Wednesday, November 01, 2006

What Do You Believe?

I love the public library. Not just the one in Windsor, but every public library I've ever walked into. Some are admittedly nicer than others. But it isn't the building or the layout I enjoy; it's the smell, the atmosphere, the hordes of books and CDs and audio books and movies and magazines that surround me. When the world ends, I want to be in a public library.

I usually go to the library armed with a list of books I want to read. My "Books to Read Before I Die" list is a pipe dream, really. I know I'll never have the time to read every book on my list, or the ones that will one day appear there. Still, I like my list. It's long. It's comforting. And I can add and delete book titles for any reason I like, or no reason at all. My book list is my little effort at rebellion.

On my way to the checkout line at a library recently, I spotted a book I'd never heard of. "This I Believe" was published this year in association with National Public Radio (NPR). The subtitle is "The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women." The intriguing title, along with NPR's endorsement, led me to do what I tell my kids not to do: check out the book without even opening the cover to see if I'll like it. I knew I'd like it.

I don't like this book. I cannot get through it because every brief essay gives me reason to pause and think. No, that's not the right word. I ruminate. Perhaps contemplate. Evaluate. Brood. Cogitate. Mull over. Ponder. Reflect. Consider. Examine. But most of all, I appreciate. This book I keep reading and yet don't seem to progress through is an amazing compendium of thoughts belonging to people both famous and non. It speaks to me in a quiet way that demands my attention. And long after I've read one of the short entries, I find myself thinking about it. No, I don't like this book. I love it.

What I most enjoy about this book is that its subjects range from important topics such as God, compassion, and attitude to the seemingly more insignificant subjects, including happiness, Barbie dolls, and indecisiveness. People--most of them not writers--were given the prompt "This I Believe," and they had as much freedom of expression as could fit into a few hundred words. What they've done with those words astonishes me.

In my recent years as a weekly columnist, I have been both criticized and praised for writing about everything and nothing. What one person considers inconsequential and not worth writing about, another deems life-altering. What a reader might disregard as too personal to put into print, another finds permission, allowance to feel for herself, and there is a resulting communion. Writing is an intensely personal pursuit, regardless of subject. And that's what I find invaluable in this book. These people had something to say, and they said it, condemnation be damned.

I may have my own opinions and personal philosophies, and you know I've never hesitated to share them. But they're not all etched in stone; they are, as am I, constantly shifting and evolving, and my philosophies reflect that growth. "This I Believe" is written by "remarkable" people, according to the title. We tend to think of that adjective as one meaning "outstanding" or "unusual." But really, it just means "worth remarking upon." One need not be larger than life, exceptional, or amazing to be remarkable. Despite the resolute title, not all the essayists know what they believe. They reserve the right to be "wobbly," as one man puts it. And while I'm not a middle-of-the-road type of gal (you get hit by traffic from both directions if you stand there too long), I can understand not always having a firm belief in something one way or the other.

At any rate, this book is a keeper. I think the personal value of any literature can be directly linked to the time in which it is written as well as to the circumstances under which it is read. In these days of endless war, political gaffes up the wazoo, economic hardships and a general lack of (what I believe is) intelligent leadership on multiple levels, I find the simplicity and direct honesty of the messages that lie between the two covers of this book to be uplifting and inspirational. They feed my soul as surely as food nourishes my body, and I hope you'll pick up a copy and give it a try. Prepare to have your own beliefs challenged as well as echoed, and perhaps allow yourself to be nudged outside your comfort zone if the opportunity presents itself.

We are, after all, each of us remarkable, if imperfect, in our own way. And if nothing else, we each have something to offer, even (especially?) to those who may not realize it.


Judith K. Witherow said...

If we give up our right to speak we have no one to blame but ourselves. Believe without a doubt that what you have to say is important. It doesn't matter if you are the only one who thinks this is true.
The same fact applies to the rights of others when speaking. Whether we agree with what they say is of little consequence. Respect the right to hold an opinion.
The last thing we have to lose is freedom of speech. Fear should invade every cell in your body if you are silenced on any issue.

april t said...

ok, you've convinced me. now it's on my list also. ;)