READING AS STUMBLING BACK TO OURSELVES
Daniel Coleman and In Bed with the Word
(LETTERS • BOOKS)
BY JULIA EMPEY
When I was offered the chance to write about my experience reading Daniel Coleman’s In Bed With The Word, it seemed fitting to write a letter. While taking Dr. Coleman’s class in my final year of undergrad at McMaster University, part of our grade was based on a reading journal. We were expected to read and journal our reactions to the pieces assigned and then submit our literary ‘revelations’ to Dr. Coleman. As an ambitious undergrad student, I thought it would be clever to write letters to my close friend and share our responses with Dr. Coleman. I thought it would be easier, that by writing to my friend I wasn’t truly opening up pieces of myself to my professor.
Once again, I have hesitated while writing this piece. What stopped me from finishing my thoughts? Caution has less to do with others and more with myself. When I re-read Dr. C’s book, I’m always reminded that part of the act of reading is being vulnerable to oneself and to others, to move beyond fear. So I wrote a letter:
Dear Dr. C,
I have never read your book in bed. I have read it on the bus, in my favourite tree, while sitting on the old chair my family’s owned since before I was born, and, most recently, on a sunny day lounging at the beach. There is a peculiar intimacy with reading this book over and over again. It’s peculiar because I have a relationship with this book that is not like my relationship with other books. I can leave most books behind after I have finished them but yours keeps following me. It’s intimate because I have read this book so many times, yet each time I re-read it I experience its contents and myself differently. There are very few books that seem to demand so much of myself but the demand is barely voiced within the book’s pages.
I find it difficult to separate my experience reading this book from the question we were asked on the first day of class, “Why read?” That is such a simple but elusive question. I know I am not the only person who took your class and left still wondering and searching for the answer. A student still questioning after a class is over is not a sign of a poorly taught class – instead, it shows a teacher who knows his students need to keep thinking after the class is over. You didn’t want us to walk away thinking we were at the end of understanding. You taught us that the class is just the beginning of understanding. Since that class finished, I’ve realized that reading is a series of encounters with others and other versions of myself who were, are, and will be in the future.
That class, and in turn, you, have become a spectre in my memory, but I do remember the sensation of reading your book for the first time. I was moved by your poignant meditation on not just reading and its importance, but also spirituality, a topic often cast to the shadows. You drew on Ronald Rolheiser for your definition of spirituality: “the shape or structure we give to this basic human longing” (9). I had never thought of my own spirituality in such a way, but as I’ve left your class, gone on to complete more schooling, and read more, the definition stands as accurate.
I’ve changed since that class. I think I’ve become somewhat wiser, busier, and maybe a bit braver. In that time, I’ve realized that I had been trying to read to find belonging, to fill my innate longing, but I didn’t want to be vulnerable to myself. I knew all this information intellectually, but I did not want to put it into practice because I was afraid I couldn’t be vulnerable. I held onto my fear and practiced stoicism as a safety net but your book showed me that the only way to fully live is to open oneself up to the Other and, most importantly, the Other within.
I don’t have much else to say. Trying to articulate exactly how/why your book matters to me has always been a challenge. In some ways, your book makes me feel and think too much that words seem to lose meaning. I’ll simply close by saying thank you for unintentionally helping me stumble my way back to myself.
As always, take care,
Julia A. Empey is a writer and occasional poet based in the GTA. She completed her Honours B.A. and M.A. at McMaster University and plans to pursue her PhD. When she’s not writing she can be found working in the V.A.W. sector, reading voraciously, or walking her dog.