Opera seems an unlikely portal to a new column on books. Still, a recent evening at an Atlanta production of The Elixir of Love, Donizetti’s long and silly little love song, left me thinking more of reading and readers than of bel canto, lovely as it is.
As a writer, observance is blessing and curse at once. Forget immersion in most any moment—lovemaking, gardening, sports events: The Writer perversely takes notes in the midst of overwhelming pleasures and the humdrum alike. How pretty her eyelashes. The earth feels warm here, like freshly baked bread. Fourth and goal, why is Saban carrying his clipboard upside down? The watchful third eye of the writer always searches, always strays. A writer possesses, or is possessed by, an eye of Sauron—always vigilant, unblinking, watching. (Please, if you don’t know the Lord of the Rings reference, run out and pick up the book. It’s a pretty good read.)
This is why, as sappy, outlandish Nemerino sings Quant e bella, sucking the attention of the whole concert hall into his lovelorn lungs, one member of the audience—The Writer —glances away from the stage.
For some reason inexplicable even to me, I’m compelled to study the concert hall instead of the stage. I see rows and rising rows of enthralled faces in the half-light, a mix of the blue-haired and hip, the tail-and-tied and bluejeaned, five hundred human beings utterly swept away in the moment. Like children bathed in half-light, these momentarily innocent men and women seem beautiful, ageless, suspended in time by the spectacle before their eyes. Rembrandt would have toiled to capture their expressions, these halos of light around all these happy heads.
A holy loveliness.
I pay attention to the opera again. But the writer’s mind is already engaged. My first thought, rising like an aria, goes to the world of readers. Again, inexplicable.
I think of great books, and even good ones, standing on night stands in this wide world, or in the briefcases of people about to board a flight, or on countless library and bookstore shelves. Books in children’s rooms. Books in stacks on floors, on tables.
I feel a cinematic flicker, and a mental film advances, and I now see those same books, pages parted, and over them the hovering faces of tens of millions of readers—tens of millions of people, all over this country and all over the world—suspended in time, lost in the reader’s moment, an audience as beautiful and yearning and transported as the one that drank so deeply from The Elixir of Love, but vastly larger, a tremendous sea of readers, books and words.
These tens of millions of us settle down each and every single day…to read. To know the pleasures and passions of the printed page. To lose ourselves, immersed, in fiction and nonfiction, to sponge up dreams, facts, ideas, motivations, truths.
This fellowship of readers matters. My own life is dedicated to them—to words and their containers: other writers always, and books, and tomorrow’s electronic reading machines, and whatever else will display our words in the future.
We are a paradox, those of us who read. We seek truth…in the great white lie of fiction. We choose to engage in life by sitting quietly apart from it, curled up in an armchair. We find a lively pleasure in becoming inanimate, sitting so still, so long.
This column will be a place for the fellowship of readers to gather, knowing there are so many like us sharing the ritual of turning pages, our faces lit by that holy operatic light that burns inside our books.