The Culture of Reading: An Interview with Christopher Alexander Gellert

By Kaila Allison


Why do you read?  It’s a question that goes deeper than we may think. Storytelling, in its most elemental form,  is how we learn. We can be warned by stories, delighted and entertained by stories, and challenged by stories. Our conversation with stories helps inform how we live our lives, and how we teach our peers. How exactly? FORTH contributor, Christopher Alexander Gellert, hopes to find out in his project, WHY WE READ //POURQUOI  NOUS LISONS.

Gellert is embarking on a new project that asks us why we read. We got the chance to discuss how literature inspired Gellert, and his goals for his project and beyond.


KA: Do you remember the first book you ever read? How did it affect you? Why did reading resonate with you?


CG: My clearest and earliest memories reading are of my mother reading aloud to me –- Good Night Moon, Madeleine, Eloise, Frank L. Baum’s Oz books –- and it was through her voice, our relationship, that I grew to love reading. From early childhood I have felt that reading literature is not a solitary act but a way to bridge the space that separates us from others and build relationships. I also gained the sense that the world was so much vaster than myself and my own experiences –- and that existence was not limited to my own narrow reality, but contained within all that we might imagine, and dream.


KA: How did you specifically get interested in French literature?


CG: I ate my way into French literature.

When I was a kid I had the great privilege to be able to visit Provence with my parents. In the two weeks prior to our trip I had decided I was a vegetarian. I was not a vegetarian who ate vegetables. I ate frozen waffles and pancakes and missed the bacon. One night when we went out to dinner, my parents ordered snails. The waitress asked if I would like to try one; “No, no thank you,” I replied. She laughed at the American boy who would not eat garden mollusks. They ordered a beefsteak, and in the night air, warm with crickets, I did not resist. The world opened for me with colors I had not known existed. It was as though I had passed my days taking the world in through a grey-scale; afterwards, things could not but feel different. And this possibility of color would open me to the sensual quality of art. But it was not principally the visual I was drawn to, but the tactile quality of language, the susurration of the tongue.

Before I lived in France in high school I did not think of myself as a writer. I wrote — I flirted with acting, plastic arts. Speaking another language would crystallize my vocation. That cat was chat made the world fresh. The signified (the animal) regained its form in the subtle sibilance of the signifier (chat). And language became even more present in my relationships; my host family’s last name was Lechat. Words revealed to me the power they had when I was a child. And I began to write. Words do not just say how things are — they interpret and guide our emotions, and they alter how we perceive and live with others. So when I fell in love, this act was also expressed in language, and channeled in verse.

And I began to read in a way I had not before—reading in another language, like speaking it, helps us recover the essential magic of words.


KA: What is it about French culture that provides the perfect atmosphere for literary conversation?


CG: Perhaps the difference between French and American culture is that in France art is considered a public right, and a public resource (art museums are free for the unemployed and for everyone under twenty-six, and discounts are given to performances at theaters supported by the State) just like education and health care. Here, we’re still fighting for affordable higher education and accessible quality health care.

The French consider authors and publishers vital resources to be protected. One of the reasons independent bookstores still flourish in Paris is that Amazon isn’t allowed to undersell them. Whereas, here in the States, the Obama administration went after publishers and Apple for price fixing e-books, accusing them of antitrust violations. In France, price fixing is encouraged to support authors and publishers and make it a viable business.

It is not that the French are so much more sophisticated than we are, just being French, but that there is greater access to culture for people from all walks of life and backgrounds. One recent article offered encouragement about France’s current difficulty integrating immigrant populations into national life by highlighting an organization that arranged competitions of French oral dictations (a standard part of the school curriculum) in poorer neighborhoods, and of the incredible success and enthusiasm people had for this project. The French believe that you are not born French, you become French through public education, and through language. This model has its own problems, but it’s one that encourages a respect for literature, and the power of words.

And after all, Albert Camus was born to indigent parents and an illiterate mother — he became the writer he is through the encouragement of his teachers as part a model of free public education that valued the place of literature.


KA: What are you reading right now?


CG: As part of this project I’ve reached out to readers who have already invited me into their homes and asked what books have shaped and changed their lives – those books that have been critical to their evolution. I’m currently working my way through their selections.

At the moment, War & Peace, Boris Vian’s L’Écume des jours, and the poetry of Kenneth White.

I’m also been reading Marc-Alain Ouaknin’s Bibliothérpie on reading’s healing power, which a friend of mine offered to me as gift when I told her about this project.


KA: Which writers influence your own poetry, essays, journalism and criticism?


CG: The writers who have had the most direct influence on my writing have been writers whom I’ve had as teachers, who have acted as mentors to me, with whom I’ve developed relationships and have become friends — the poets Todd Hearon, Matt W. Miller, Abigail McDonald and Sarah Gridley. The journalists Nelson Graves (founder of News-Decoder) and Jennifer Cho Salaff have shaped and given clear definition to the ink I spill as a correspondent — so I don’t spill so much ink. Mika Kasuga Shijung Kim and Robert Blakslee, whom I worked with on the collaborative blog Soonest Mended, have all helped hone my essayist’s nib and critical eye.


KA: Shifting more towards literature’s representation in education. What do you think about school curriculums that emphasize the sciences? Do you think the humanities is a lost passion? How do we revive the humanities in a world so powered by technology and science?


CG: I feel that teaching math and science over humanities is like choosing between seeing and hearing, or voluntarily cutting off a healthy limb – math and science and the humanities offer us different ways of perceiving the world and open us up to different parts of ourselves. And while we so often look on them as separate — even as estranged studies — they beautifully complement one another. We hear it trumpeted pretty regularly how closely intertwined math and music are. A friend mine from high school is currently working on his doctorate in pure math; he considers himself an artist.

Science, just as arts do, requires creative and elegant thinking. We all know that Da Vinci was both a scientist and a great painter, but we seem to have forgotten as a culture how we fare better when the arts and sciences work together. Reading, literature, the arts help us grow and mature, and aid us to develop our emotional intelligence. I do not believe that as a species we have the emotional maturity to wisely use the technology we currently possess, and we continue to move even more quickly.

Scientists have been very clear that unless we do something we are condemning ourselves and our planet. We need to begin to listen — to learn how to listen.

I do not believe that the humanities are a lost art. I do believe that unless we recapture them and reposition them as fundamental to our lives — to seek not only to acquire knowledge, but learn wisdom— we will not only lose our souls but we will condemn ourselves to extinction.


KA: What do you think about people’s diminishing attention spans and tendency to read more tweets and less literature? Is literature falling out of favor? What can you do to stop that?


CG: We need time to think and reflect in order to achieve true wisdom. Perhaps one of the reasons people don’t read as much is they feel they are pressed for time, but I think it’s also that we do not give ourselves enough time to devote our attention to those few, essential things and people in our lives that truly matter, and instead we are spread too thin and do many things badly.

I don’t think we need to look any further than the vacuity of tweets and reality TV over literature than the current presidential race. It’s something we can all become just as wrapped up in, and I’m just as guilty of as anyone else of this — I remember being diverted and entertained by The Apprentice and Project Runway, and I can just as easily fritter away my time with trivia. I don’t believe that literature or art is entertaining, though it offers enormous pleasure; art demands hard work on our part. Perhaps this is difference between enjoyment and fun…

This project is about breaking out of that, together. It’s about affirming those things that matter, nourishing our souls — enjoying the beautiful work of our lives.


KA: Your goal is to compile the answers of your participants into a book. What do you hope to accomplish with this book? What audience do you hope to reach?


CG: I want to examine the influence of reading in our lives — its power to shape and change — to question and understand how this happens.

After all, language and words can be manipulated, and like any other means of expression they can be used as a tool: blunt instruments by those in power. What we read is just as important as reading — questioning what we are confronted with. And I think it can be too easy to proclaim reading as a kind of panacea, a cure-all. By this bland admonishment just to read, and we can ignore the terrible power of reading and language.

I’m reminded of Emma Bovary drinking in the novels of Walter Scott, and how her face-value — almost literalist — acceptance of the Romantic ideas of these stories poisoned her; she was unable to confront her own reality. In the end she committed suicide and orphaned her infant daughter. And yet, discussing this novel with a friend of mine, (who named her daughter Emma after the heroine, a fact which often shocks people) she spoke to how Emma Bovary is perhaps not so much trapped by her imagination, but by the limits of her time. Emma Bovary could not live out her dreams and choose freely as a woman. And perhaps, she was hampered by a lack of imagination, the inability to translate and interpret Walter Scott, and to integrate the larger truths in his work into her own existence — she could only transpose his Romantic fantasies. One of my best friends revealed to me when I was speaking to her about this project that while she was in middle school, one of her teachers recommend Madame Bovary to her, and while she did read it, and even liked it, it didn’t seem to affect her much. It took her years to fully digest and assimilate the novel, and now she would go so far as to call it her novel. She reads it in periods of about every two years, because she needs to, precisely because she reinterprets it differently every time. Nabokov consuls us: “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it.”

I want to reaffirm the vital importance of reading, not only for a French audience where reading and literature are eroding despite protections from the pressures of a global economy and contemporary life, but also in the United States, where we seem to have almost forgotten as a culture the power of words to carry us away in the face of other media.

Part of what I’m trying to accomplish with this project is not so much to praise reading, or at least not to do so thoughtlessly. I feel it’s important to hear people’s stories of how reading has changed them. As one of the participants in this project pointed out, of course everything we read changes us — the real question is how. And I think it’s through stories of those ways in which reading has helped shaped very varied people’s personal growth that we can really affirm reading’s essential place in our lives, its value. I’m also reminded of what a former poetry professor, Sarah Gridley, said about marketing, all the slogans we’re constantly assaulted with — that the place of poetry is in part to deflate the manipulative language of publicity, and pierce us to the quick.


KA: Why do you read?


CG: I could not do otherwise. If I didn’t read it would be like extinguishing a great light from my life. It would diminish my existence and weaken and narrow my self. I could survive without reading, just as I could survive without good food, without exercise, without fresh air, without dancing and love – but this is not the kind of life I would choose to live. I feel very fortunate to have this choice.

Christopher Alexander Gellert studied French literature at NYU, where he wrote an undergraduate thesis under the direction of Eugène Nicole on the relationship between the hero’s vocation as a writer in Proust’s La Recherche du temps perdu and movement in food throughout the work. The summer after a year studying in Paris, he also received a grant to write two twin stories (in French & English), variations in the palate of language. Traduttore traditore. He freelances translating from French and Spanish into English; you’ll find his some of his translation work here. He has lived in Rennes, France as well as Concepción, Chile, where he taught English. He is currently working on a novel, and as always, his verse. He returns to Paris in the fall to study at Paris VII under the direction of Éric Marty to examine the enormous influence of literature on people’s lives and experiences.


Curated by FORTH Nonfiction Editors.

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