William Blake in Airportland

March 18: I am sitting in the Charlotte airport, which seems to be my home away from home these days, and I’ve just had a tiny moment that left me, as the French say, bouleversée. Traversing the moving walkways and mottled industrial carpet from Concourse C to Concourse B, I noted how the temperature of the air increased as I turned from the high-ceilinged atrium onto the more crowded concourse, and it occurred to me that most of the heat was being generated by the hundreds of warm-blooded creatures who were hurrying from one gate to the next. How remarkable, I thought, that each one of us in this impersonal space is a sentient creature; and the next thought hurtling my way was that our sentience was manifest primarily in language. My dog, for instance, is sentient. And my dog’s experience of this space would differ from mine in many, many ways—but mostly because of language.

OK, so much for 8:00 a.m. thoughts when you’ve wakened at 5:00.

But then I sat down and booted up my iPad (which I dislike intensely, but that’s another story), and I checked out the Sunday paper to find two editorials about language that echoed my inchoate thoughts. What a strangely serendipitous travel morning!

This is National Reading Month—the reason, I suppose, for running a pair of Op-Eds that have little apparent relation to Republican presidential contests or the carnage in Syria. The first, by Annie Murphy Paul, reports recent scientific findings proving what we novel readers have always known: that reading fiction, with its ample supply of imagery and leaps of narrative imagination, prompts certain areas of the brain to react in productive ways:

Metaphors like “The singer had a velvety voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” … did not. … Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.

I wish Mort Beckner were alive to read this. Mort was my undergraduate philosophy thesis adviser, and we used to spend hours debating metaphor. I argued, in my youthful hubris, that you could no more replace “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” with matter-of-fact language than you could say “this pencil is yellow” by naming the components of the paint coating the pencil. (This, young readers, is when professors and students discussed papers with pencils—wooden pencils—in their hands.) Mort argued the opposite: given sufficient time and intelligence, he could render Shakespeare’s phrase more precisely by ditching the metaphor. Mort was rarely wrong, but Paul’s essay yields the material evidence I sorely needed back in 1975. What do you say now, Professor Beckner? I’d love to ask.

The second Op-Ed, Jhumpa Lahiri’s extolling of those exquisite sentences we carry with us from great literature, suggests that “Rereading them, certain sentences are what greet me as familiars. You have visited before, they say when I recognize them. … The best sentences orient us, like stars in the sky, like landmarks on a trail.”

This notion puts me in mind of one of the reasons I decided to go to graduate school. Entertaining the idea, I had begun flipping through the Norton Anthology of English Literature, where I ran across William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy,” from his Songs of Innocence. “And we are put on earth a little space,” read the fourth stanza, “that we may learn to bear the beams of love.”

OMG! I thought. (Well OK, I didn’t think that, because we didn’t have texting then.) So that’s Blake!

I had carried that lovely sentence with me half my life not knowing where it came from. I had to go to graduate school, I decided, to reconnect all the lovely sentences in my head with the people who wrote them.

They’re boarding my flight to New Orleans. (This is book-tour season, folks; see my subtle plug.) Off I go, with Blake on the brain. And who can claim that such truths are not relevant to the times in which we warm-blooded, sentient beings find ourselves living?

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