Among the books I brought to read while on retreat was Marilynn Richtarik’s Getting to Good Friday: Literature and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, which examines Irish writers who commented on and sought to strengthen peace efforts through poetry, fiction, and drama. Richtarik considers several influential works that treat violence in Northern Ireland obliquely, finding a deeper truth than the sum of daily news reports by telling things “slant.”
I think the closest close reading I’ve ever come across is the 2014 book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, by political philosopher Danielle Allen. Notice that I didn’t say that this close reading is “in the book.” No, the entire book itself is a close reading.
Carolyn Forché is now a celebrated American poet. But she was far from that on the day in the late 1970s when a car pulled up outside the remote California beach house that she was renting. The driver idled the engine, then finally turned it off. At that, Forché, alone in the house and busily typing, noticed the sudden silence and became apprehensive. In her gripping memoir What You Have Heard is True, she narrates what happened next.
I picked a hell of a time to try to write about a Russian author. As I type this, the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has been going on for a few days. I was going to write about a man named Vladimir Soloukhin, in particular about his fascinating book Searching for Icons in Russia. But I don’t have the heart to write what I had been planning to write.
That is the connection between Stevens and Nguyen. Nothing. Both writers are geniuses at revealing the revolutionary power of Nothing, Stevens for the literary, Nguyen for the political imagination. Nothing like nothing releases both imaginations from the dead end of habit and convention.
Even in our nation’s founding documents, the Inaugural Pronoun “We” has a hard time surviving the language that surrounds it. James Boyd White, in When Words Lose Their Meanings, brilliantly shows, in his close reading of both the Declaration and the Constitution, how nearly their respective “We’s” come to foundering in the turbulence of everyday reality.
First, stop waiting for someone else to do it. If, one day, someone does come with the power to heal this monstrous gash, you’ll be asked what you did while you waited. You’ll be asked what you think your purpose here is. You’ll be asked who the hell you think you are.