Odysseus, Huck, and Indigo Girls
A bookstore is a collection of stories, stories from the minds and hearts of people throughout the world and throughout history. We can never predict how one particular story will reach us in a unique, personal way. Several years ago the folk-rock duo Indigo Girls -- comprised of Emily Saliers and Amy Ray -- wrote a song entitled "Virginia Woolf" in which Emily remembers reading the diaries of the author when she was young. She is struck by the effect that Woolf's words had on her:
"And here's a young girl/ on a kind of a telephone line through time/ And the voice at the other end comes like a long lost friend/ So I know I'm all right/ life will come and life will go/ Still I feel it's all right/ ’cause I just got a letter to my soul.”
How many times, in reading a novel or a journal or a history, have we unexpectedly received that letter to our souls? And how often has it been from a writer so far removed from our own culture and experience that we are pleasantly stunned by the universality of those words?
In 1884, Mark Twain published "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." In a now oft-quoted scene, Twain describes Huck's turmoil in deciding whether to send a letter to Miss Watson, informing her of the whereabouts of her escaped slave -- and his new friend -- Jim. He struggles with his Sunday school upbringing and with the morals of the society around him when he finally makes his choice:
"I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right, then, I'll go to hell'- and tore it up."
A life-changing decision, an epiphany of sorts: choosing what he feels is right, and yet risking what he may believe is eternal damnation. And now, 132 years later, a reader in a small town in northern California can understand that moment on a deeper level, perhaps even identifying with a similar moment in his or her own life.
But the universality of stories can transcend the barriers of time, culture, and language. Twenty-seven centuries ago, Homer told his story of Odysseus returning home from the Trojan war. A different culture, a different language, a different people than twenty-first century America, and yet moments of that tale connect with our timeless humanity. As Odysseus finally reaches his homeland, he comes across his pet dog, Argos, who had survived all those years without his master but was now dying from neglect:
"As soon as he was aware of Odysseus, he wagged his tail and flattened his ears, but he lacked the strength to get up and go to his master. Odysseus wiped a tear away, turning aside to keep the swineherd from seeing it… "
Thousands of years have past, and yet the words still have power. We can still comprehend that connection with a beloved pet, and the emotions evoked when faced with the sadness and guilt of abandonment and helplessness. Through numerous translations, nations, and eras, the message on the "kind of a telephone line through time" remains loud and clear.
Stories connect our humanity, and books carry these stories from our past into our future. Hundreds or thousands of years from now, a reader may pick up a book -- in whatever form that may be -- and receive that unexpected letter to her soul.