What makes it important?
It was interesting to see what made it onto my autobiographical reading list. And how many books I have read over the years that were not important or influential. Why read so many books that are not influential? Can one know before reading them? In many cases yes. It would seem like a safe bet that Dante, Goethe, Proust, Cervantes & Montaigne would have a high probability of being influential and important to me. They have clearly been to so many others. Although often books are important to me for different reasons.
There are the books that are important or influential for reasons not strictly limited to their content. Some were important because of their context, what was happening in my life, who else read them and talked about them with me. I’ll try to pick out a few that fit this model and try to explain how they came to be important to me.
2002 Mahfouz-Children of the Alley
This book and particularly the circumstances around reading it, changed my engagement with reading in a very dramatic way. It became more participatory and social, less private, personal and ephemeral.
We had signed up for a program called “Understanding Islam” at the local library. It would meet about once a month for four or five months and each meeting was organized around the reading and discussion of a book. Each meeting was led by a particular specialist in the subject of the evening. Topics included religion, politics, and the role of women. It also included the reading of a novel, Nagib Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley. It is a fairly long novel, around 500 pages. I was uncertain if I was going to have the time to get through the whole before the meeting. I knew nothing about Mahfouz and was not sure I wanted to commit so much time to reading a book that I had never heard of and might not interest me.
Much to my surprise, the book was a very quick read. It had a simple fairy tale-like quality. The prose was clear, easy, engaging, but the ideas complex, far-reaching and difficult. While it had an allegorical feeling about it, the story was open to a variety of interpretations. I was hooked. I was curious about Mahfouz, his life and his other writings. By the time the group met again I had read a handful of his other books and was looking forward to hearing what our subject expert and others thought about Children of the Alley.
But it was not to happen. Our “subject expert” was a radio journalist who had worked for NPR in Egypt. He claimed to have read the book once many years ago but his recollection was vague and interest level low. He knew very little about Mahfouz and clearly did not think it worth his time to do some basic research or even reread the book he was to be an “expert” on. Instead he earned his stipend by filling the time telling stories about being a journalist in Egypt. It kept the group entertained and relieved them of having to think about, respond to or even passively learn about Mahfouz and his writing.
But I was terribly disappointed. This was the best and most interesting material in the whole program and we completely missed out on it. I assumed that they must be having a difficult time finding qualified and interested people to lead the sessions. The next day I called the Massachusetts Foundation for Humanities and volunteered to help out. The process of getting started was full of red tape and hassle, so I can see why they might have been short of qualified session leaders. But I eventually got the opportunity to lead some sessions, which I loved. The program ended soon but I realized that there were many more opportunities like this and started working toward doing more of this kind of thing. It sounds small but provided an outlet for a kind intellectual activity I was not able to do at work . This changed the way I thought about my life and eventually led me to meet some of my closest friends.