David G. McCullough Jr., an English teacher at Wellesley High School, delivered the faculty remarks heard ‘round the world during the 2012 Wellesley High School commencement ceremonies. In his remarks, viewed nearly two million times on YouTube, he reminded the graduating class and their families that they are not special – because everyone is special. Mr. McCullough’s thoughtful and provocative remarks about the meaning of achievement inspired Raising A Reader MA to invite him to serve as the keynote speaker at their annual Dinner with an Author fundraiser. Hosted on April 3, 2013 at Boston’s Hampshire House, this fundraiser brought local literary luminaries — like Hallie Ephron, Joseph Finder, and Claire Messud — together with Donors to discuss books, reading, and strategies for closing the academic achievement gap. His remarks preceded an appeal for funds and live auction that helped raised $90,000 to support the delivery of Raising A Reader MA’s high impact program that supports families of young children living in vulnerable communities in their efforts to develop, practice, and maintain habits of reading together at home.
Mr. McCullough, who is currently writing a book, shared his remarks with us with the goal of making them available to the guests at the 2013 Dinner with an Author upon their request. These remarks are intended for personal use only, and may not be distributed in print or on the Web without his express permission.
To inquire about sharing these remarks please contact Gretchen Kinder at Raising A Reader MA, [email protected] or 617.292.BOOK.
“Consider, please, the chickadee… the black-capped chickadee… proudly, our state bird, member of the titmouse family, sometimes known as the dickybird… to which, given the chance, the black-capped chickadee would probably object. A hearty survivor, a daringly acrobatic flier, a melodious chirper, charmingly sociable, the black-capped chickadee, weighing in at just under half an ounce, is also delicately beautiful… exquisitely delicately beautiful. It is magnificent, really, the black-capped chickadee, a superlative creature… but for one catch: its brain is about the size of a lima bean. Not for nothing the term “bird-brain.”
Conversely, our species, yours and mine, flies no more acrobatically than a chunk of granite. The weather sours and we head inside. Many of us, and not just the Scottish, can be dour, often downright grouchy. Even in a wheelbarrow, precious few of us can carry a tune–some of us, in fact, as a humanitarian gesture sing not at all. As for beauty… exquisite, delicate beauty… well, okay, sure, but rarely and over a lifespan briefly… and of course there’s the familiar eye-of-the-beholder caveat, which renders the entire proposition wildly subjective. I once knew, for instance, an otherwise sane-seeming guy who had a thing for Leona Helmsley.
We have, though, you and I, very big brains. And what we as a species do best is think. Thinking is our particular strength… despite much evidence to the contrary. For example, Congress. “The brain,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “is wider than the sky.” And across that firmament have soared, well, Emily Dickinson… and Shakespeare and Bach and Michaelangelo and Einstein and Washington and Marx and Lennon… that’s Groucho and John, by the way. In fact–and here we’re back in eye-of-the-beholder territory–the sky, the firmament, the universe, is no wider… nor narrower… than our comprehension of it. We think, as you might remember, therefore we are; and by that same logic, we think therefore the universe is, and so too, of course, everything in it.
And this, our capacity for abstract thought, is what sets us ahead… this the result, the glory, of hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Time, space, being… these are abstract and therefore human constructs. Love, fear, determination, hope… these are at the very heart of what it means to be human, and they are abstractions. They are thoughts. Picture, please, a black-capped chickadee alighting on an oak branch in a gentle spring snowfall. Got it? There… you’ve just engaged in a little abstract thought, which puts you at the very apex of every species in the known universe, etant or otherwise. The riddle of the sphinx, the Gordian knot, Foucault’s pendulum, the infield fly rule, the appeal of hot yoga, the fascination with… even mild interest in… the Kardashians… if you can explain any of these you are the seated monarch of the animal kingdom. The horse is stronger and faster and more graceful than we are, the dolphin much the better swimmer, the lion would have us for lunch–but you and I, we are the champion thinkers.
And when we think, when we think at our best, when we want to get it right, and share what we’ve come up with to optimal effect, when we hope to connect with other thinkers in a most profound way, we write.
Speaking, of course, is just a rough draft. We cobble together thoughts as they occur, toss them quickly, sometimes frantically, into words and shove them out the door… but only if what is understood is what is heard, if what is heard is what is said, if what is said is what is meant, have we gotten through. That’s an awful lot to get right when you’re making it up on the fly. With a blank page before us, though, we take as long as we need, we concentrate, we release the imagination, we stroll the stacks of all we’ve learned, we compose and cut and add and cut again and tinker and fiddle and sand and polish. And the result can last forever… its relevance, its wisdom, its aesthetic potency, all of it every bit as fresh as the moment the ink dried. Try Irwin Shaw’s short story “The Girls In Their Summer Dresses,” written seventy-four years ago but reads like it could have been this morning. Try Cervantes’ Don Quixote, written more than four hundred years ago. Try Homer’s The Odyssey, written, scholars can only guess, in the seventh or eighth century BC. It’s dumb to be dumb, Homer suggests, whomever he might have been, it’s smart to be smart. Humility and civility and loyalty matter… and home and family matter most of all. How much more relevant, more contemporary, more right now, could that be? And written almost three thousand years ago.
Literature, the written word, the elegant musings of superior thinkers, is vital and immediate and immortal, its accrued wisdom human capital, our greatest, most enduring legacy as a civilized, thinking species. And all of it, every word, entirely pointless if we don’t read.
Drolly, Mark Twain pointed out that for purposes of ignorance, there’s little practical difference between being unable to read and choosing not to. Ray Bradbury suggested there’s little practical difference between ignoring books and burning them.
Reading nourishes the mind, the heart, the soul. It affirms our humanity. It assails all that would thwart us. It connects us to one another. It shows us the way. We must, then, read. We must read about Odysseus and Robinson Crusoe and Huck Finn and Jo March… and Yertle the Turtle and Curious George and the quiet old lady whispering hush… not just to find in them elements of ourselves, but to make them–or anyone else we read about–part of ourselves, which is to say part of our larger comprehension of the human experience. And while invariably there is recognition in reading, which can be both helpful and
reassuring, even exhilarating, more important still is discovery. In reading about Okonkwo or Mrs. Dalloway or Scout Finch or Bertie Wooster or Ferdinand the Bull, we’re adding to our own all-too-brief, all-too-limited encounter with life. Reading, then, is an expansive endeavor. And enriching, and, one hopes, ennobling. Reading delineates right and wrong. Reading illuminates possibilities, tests exigencies, inspires ideas. It shows us the distinction between sympathy and empathy and why it matters. If we’ve read them well, we feel with Yossarian or Anna Karenina or Jack Aubrey or Peter Rabbit, not for them. At the same time we see and feel the urgency of their situation and the conflicts with which they have to contend. Their experiences become ours. We emerge all the wiser.
I’ve focused here just on fiction, but the same could be… should be… said of history as well. How can we know who we are without knowing our story? And imagine a world without poetry or drama, without journalism or biography or memoir. With reading we are at once within and without, and ours becomes a deeper and more comprehensive and more informed consciousness. With reading, then, we think bigger and better… therefore we are bigger and better.
The problem is, though… and let’s admit it… we don’t read enough. You don’t. I don’t. Our children don’t. We’re too busy, or so we tell ourselves. Or too tired. Or too easily seduced by electronic nitwittery… to which children, alas, are the most vulnerable. With television, the internet and video games, too many young people want to sit down and read about as much as they want to sit down and do math problems or clean their room. Reading is broccoli with so much candy within easy reach… with, I’ll add, analogous consequences. Reading seems, well, boring. Arduous. Old fashioned. It takes time and sustained focus. And with the fast, fast, fast of the digital age has come lazy imaginations and twitchy addiction to thrill-a-minute surface sensation… as well as easy acceptance of superficial and often shoddy writing, which is to say superficial and shoddy thinking. Which leaves us where?
And with reading so too goes writing: there’s no time nor, it seems, inclination for concentrating, for ruminating, for crystallizing an idea, for crafting it into precise and artful language. Standards erode. The mind atrophies. A shrugging “like, whatever” becomes the mantra. Facebook, blogging, tweeting, snap-chatting, texting… these are hardly more useful means of discourse than sitting in traffic and honking your horn. And if not downright ashamed of ourselves for all this, we should at least have the sense to be embarrassed… particularly here, in Massachusetts… for what Wisconsin is to cheese, what Arizona is to sand, Massachusetts is to education, to brainpower, to, therefore, writing and reading and wisdom.
And if the Commonwealth had a state philosopher… And why not? In addition to our black-capped chickadee, we have a state flower, a state tree, a state dog, cat, fish, insect, reptile, song, folk dance, beverage, bean, cookie, donut, muffin, and rock. (In case you’ve forgotten, the state rock is the Roxbury Puddingstone… of course.) And if we had a state philosopher, it would surely have to be Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sage of Concord, poet, essayist, lecturer, born and raised on Summer Street, a ten minute walk from here, educated at Boston Latin and across the river at Harvard, parson for a time at a church over on Hanover Street then preacher to the world, the shining light of transcendentalism and self-reliance, great font of wisdom and apothegms large and small. And an irrepressible reader… who said, “Tis the good reader that makes the good book; in every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides hidden from all else and unmistakably meant for his ear; the profit of books is according to the sensibility of the reader; the profoundest thought or passion sleeps as in a mine, until it is discovered by an equal mind and heart.”
In short, the writer cannot go it alone. Left on the shelf, a book, this greatest of all treasure chests, is just a dust-collecting decoration. Little improvement is the half-hearted, running-your-eyes-down-the-page-while-thinking-about-other-things too many of us for comfort’s sake call reading. We readers, then, must do our part, too, our active part… not just for ourselves, or for the writer, but for one another, for civilization itself… because it’s not just smart to be smart, it’s essential. If we don’t read, our traditions wither, history evaporates, our sense of ourselves fades, and ignorance settles in, a gray, inevitable and smothering dusk.
And, of course, we must do our part for our children, at home and at school. We must read to them, yes, absolutely. We must do all we can to support and encourage and guide their reading, too. But we must also show them how much we value reading ourselves. By reading. By talking about what we read. By sharing with them our own bright enthusiasm for learning, for new ideas, for new wisdom–for, too, a beautifully conceived paragraph, a really great sentence, a rollicking good story. We must demonstrate for them the quiet excitement of holding a new book in our hands and opening it for the first time. We must help them come to understand that when we read we affirm our surpassing strength as individuals and as a species, our intelligence, and open-mindedness, and the confidence that tomorrow can be, if we do it right, better than today.
Again and again, what it means to be a fully-realized human being is illuminated in our literature: think for yourself, believe in yourself, work hard, persevere, care about and take responsibility for the world and for one another, prize integrity, value what you do for its own merits, keep learning always, laugh, love, appreciate the gift of life. It’s all right there waiting for us… in books.
Which is why Raising A Reader and its fine purposes matter so very much. Even the black-capped chickadee would agree.”
David McCullough Jr
April 3, 2013
Hampshire House, Boston