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REV. JOEY N. WELSH: April 23, 2006. To read or not to read

ANOTHER ANGLE: the occasional musings of a Kentucky pastor

To Read or not to read, that is the question

By The Rev. Joey N. Welsh

My son, who is in college, was at my house the other night laboring over an opinion piece to be presented in a communications class. He was hard at work on my word processor, but even then he had the television on so he wouldn't miss out on the latest installment of "American Idol."

I never watch that show. In truth, I don't watch much television at all. I had never seen an entire episode of "Idol;" generally I try to avoid reality shows, soap operas, Jerry Springer-style talk shows and "news" shows where the participants yell at one another. Further, talk radio gets under my skin, especially when the main reason for the show seems to be the care and feeding of the obnoxious host's ego.

As "American Idol" unfolded that night, I realized that the whole premise for the episode was to humiliate and eliminate a few of the contestants in front of national spectators while their loving family members looked on from the studio audience. I suppose that some people might find such viewing to be entertaining, though I doubt that very many folks would claim seriously that their time thus spent is at all enlightening or enriching. Much of television seems to me to be the electronic equivalent of junk food: calories with no nourishment.

A lot of the noise on television simply seems, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare's Macbeth, to be "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." I quote William Shakespeare deliberately. Today is his presumed birthday. Born in 1564, he was baptized on April 26 in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. Since baptisms in England then were usually about three days following birth, April 23 is thought of as his birth date.

(This date also makes things tidy, since we know for sure that Shakespeare died in 1616, also on April 23. Calendars have changed since the 16th and 17th centuries, and the April 23 date became May 3 on the Gregorian calendar we now know and use, but I'll stick with the months and days in their original context.)

The works of William Shakespeare are a part of the bedrock of the English language. The words and cadences of Shakespeare have given rise to more familiar phrases than any literary source other than the King James Version of the Bible. An awareness of his plots and characters is woven into our culture. To any English-speaking person, Shakespeare is clearly essential.

The birthday of Shakespeare is, to me, very much like a bookend on this week. The other bookend is next Friday, April 28, the birthday of American author Harper Lee. The writer of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, she was born in 1926, 80 years ago in Monroeville, Alabama, where she still lives when she is not at her New York City residence. (To the folks who live in Monroeville, their hometown is pronounced with the accent on the first syllable: MON-ro-vul.)

Harper Lee's only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird was among the first great literary works I really studied over. I was in the ninth grade, and I gave the book a lot of attention because I wanted to make a good grade. It was only when I read the book again as an adult that I experienced the dry humor and abundant wisdom I was too young to appreciate at that first reading.

This column is too brief a span for a full expression of the appreciation we owe to William Shakespeare or Harper Lee. What I can say here and now is that the writings of these two authors crystallize for me the powerful experience that is ours whenever we open a book and encounter the written word at our own pace. It is an experience we lose if we count on the broadcast media as our only sources for ideas and information.

This week, at least, I commend to you William Shakespeare and Harper Lee. If you are intimidated by the thought of reading these authors right off, there are many good versions of Shakespeare available at the video store. I think that the 1989 version of Henry V with Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and Emma Thompson is especially fine.

And, of course, later in 2006 you can see The Merry Wives of Windsor in Horse Cave at Kentucky Repertory Theatre. The plays of Shakespeare were, after all, written for public performance, though you are missing another dimension of Shakespeare if you never have read his sonnets.

The 1962 movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird is the best translation of a novel into film that I have ever seen, but even this work misses a lot of the delightful and insightful detail of the book. Whatever you choose to rent and watch, use it as an entranceway into the printed word so you can read, absorb and re-read any passages at your chosen tempo. But dont stop with Shakespeare or Lee.

At the close of one of the novels of Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, the narrator in the story speaks directly to us readers, "Look. Look where your hands are. Now." I was at first puzzled by this command. Then I realized that when I looked at my hands at that instant, what I was doing was something indeed compelling: I was holding a book open in order to read it. What I believe Toni Morrison was saying is that opening a book is a powerful and precious thing, something that is not to be missed.

Toni Morrison was right. During this week marked by the birth dates of William Shakespeare and Harper Lee, buy a book recommended by a friend, borrow one from a pal or visit a library. And look at your hands. Are they folded in your lap, perhaps shoveling in snacks as you watch more and more television during your leisure time? Or are they holding open a book? Look where your hands are. Now. Then think. And read. You won't regret it.

This story was posted on 2006-04-23 00:30:00
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