There’s a man at my local pub who hates me. He tells me so all the time. He doesn’t hate me personally, he says—he hates me for my politics. I’m a writer, which means I’m a leftist. He’s right-wing and proud of it. He acts like it, too. His favorite word is clobber. He talks to me, though, and when we’re alone he’s even friendly with me. He’s a sales rep, a successful one.
One evening he confesses to me that he used to have a learning disability, that he went to a special school for it. He doesn’t tell me this proudly, but sadly. I’m startled, because I know what a confession like this means for him. Later he may remember that I know and hold it against me, and his hostility could be dangerous.
So why does he open up to me, a man he hates? Maybe he expects me to be gentle because I’m a writer. There’s something contemptible in his eyes. Maybe he’s counting on my sympathy, expecting me to see him in a more romantic light. And of course I am sympathetic and romantic, for good reason. I’ve read Oliver Twist and Heidi by Johanna Spyri and Red Zora by Kurt Held. I’ve been conditioned to see things in a romantic light.
What surprises me, though, is that a right-wing extremist like him knows this. How would he know that people who read are conditioned in this way? I’m sure he doesn’t read. So where did he get his ideas about reading? Maybe he thinks people who read are weak.
What is a reader, anyway?
People who do crosswords know the answer. If the clue for 24 across is “newspaper buyer,” the solution will be “reader.” Ergo, all you need to be a reader is to buy a newspaper. According to the founders of the Stadtschreiber Prize, one of the things the winner is supposed to do is bring literature to the people—to turn them into people who read. Not that I know how I’m supposed to do that. Go sit in the pub with a stack of newspapers and books at my side?
Something strange keeps happening to me at the pub, though. People show up and bring me books. They want me to read them, so the books pile up on my desk. Jürgen, for example, has been telling me for weeks about this book. It’s very valuable and old, he tells me. It’s about Germans in Brazil. It’s a real book, printed and hardbound, dedicated to the author’s wife, and I simply must read it.
So, finally, he forced it into my hands, and now it’s on my desk: Franz Donat’s Paradise and Hell: The Adventurous Fortunes of a German in Brazil Amongst Backwoodsmen, Diamond Hunters, Indians, Settlers, and Criminals—Dedicated to my Dear Wife Emilie in Gratitude. It has a picture of the author and a map, and the foreword—from 1926—ends with “a loyal German greeting” to his old homeland.
If there’s one thing I know, it’s that this book fell into Jürgen’s hands by chance. Maybe he inherited it, along with various other odds and ends. Has he even read it himself? Possibly. If so, it was a long time ago. I would guess it’s the only book he owns.
I’ve read it. It’s awful. Not that I told him that. Why would I tell him to read Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther instead and just replace his one book with another? Jürgen just wanted to find a fellow reader to share his book with, because as far as he’s concerned he’s the only person who’s ever read this Donat fellow. So he hears there’s a writer in town, and the very sympathetic idea occurs to him that this Stadtschreiber Prize-winning writer-in-residence might also be a reader, who might then become a fellow reader, a confidant, a co-conspirator. . .
To read the entire piece, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 9.