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Ode to Joy

February 28, 2003

In our lifetime, Wendell Berry seems to be the most famous asker of the eternal question: “What are people for?” (He wrote a short essay with that title.)

It is a question we should perhaps ask ourselves regularly, because it is difficult to answer. Try answering it without reflecting on how absurd the present human condition seems.

Don’t worry: You can quickly reason your way out of the trap and feel good again. I’m not trying to precipitate an existential crisis in anyone kind enough to read this column.

Wendell Berry’s question came back to me recently while reading a booklet called “Read for Joy!” — about why and how to encourage and teach children to read. Of many good and practical reasons, the authors like the reason in the title most.

Certainly, for those of us who love reading, the pursuit of its joys is reason enough, and we would wish for others that same capacity. Without a doubt, the skill of reading is necessary in our modern society. Our education is reading-intensive. One can’t use the Internet well without being a capable reader.

Is finding joy in reading all that important, though? It is easier to learn something you love, and so we might want our children to love it. However, the traditional Amish take a different view in which reading is no more than a practical skill. It mustn’t substitute for the joy in leading a Christian life.

But people find joy in many different ways. A friend — let’s call him Jimmy Ellis — reminded me of a brief exchange we’d had, in which he had said, over his armful of books, that he couldn’t imagine anyone not looking forward to a good book, not loving to read.

I replied that, well, some people like to read, some like to tie flies.

Jimmy told me later that this had been a revelation to him. My chance remark sparked an insight into hidden assumptions in his own thinking. It was the kind of effect that makes you smack your forehead and say, “Of course!”

But I revisited the idea, too, because it is both pertinent to, and obvious from, working in a public library.

If there’s one thing that should be evident to a library worker, it is that people find their joys among a great variety of things. Once you step beyond the bestsellers that “everyone” reads, there are thousands of books on many subjects being read right here in Salida.

Given our country’s current political climate, which has spawned the likes of the Patriot Act, and now apparently Patriot Act II, I would like to present a corollary to the above statement — that you can not presume to draw accurate conclusions about a person from his or her reading list. I might have guessed this were true from my own reading, but it is definitely my observation from fourteen years helping library users.

Getting back to Wendell and Jimmy: So, what are people for? They are for finding joy. I realize that there are other points of view, but all of them must take joy into account, whether they embrace or deny it, for it is quintessentially human.

This is not to say that every person is so blessed to experience it, but the capacity for joy is in us.

Let’s give Joseph Campbell the last word: “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.”

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