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  • I want to talk today about how reading can change our lives

  • and about the limits of that change.

  • I want to talk to you about how reading can give us a shareable world

  • of powerful human connection.

  • But also about how that connection is always partial.

  • How reading is ultimately a lonely, idiosyncratic undertaking.

  • The writer who changed my life

  • was the great African American novelist James Baldwin.

  • When I was growing up in Western Michigan in the 1980s,

  • there weren't many Asian American writers interested in social change.

  • And so I think I turned to James Baldwin

  • as a way to fill this void, as a way to feel racially conscious.

  • But perhaps because I knew I wasn't myself African American,

  • I also felt challenged and indicted by his words.

  • Especially these words:

  • "There are liberals who have all the proper attitudes,

  • but no real convictions.

  • When the chips are down and you somehow expect them to deliver,

  • they are somehow not there."

  • They are somehow not there.

  • I took those words very literally.

  • Where should I put myself?

  • I went to the Mississippi Delta,

  • one of the poorest regions in the United States.

  • This is a place shaped by a powerful history.

  • In the 1960s, African Americans risked their lives to fight for education,

  • to fight for the right to vote.

  • I wanted to be a part of that change,

  • to help young teenagers graduate and go to college.

  • When I got to the Mississippi Delta,

  • it was a place that was still poor,

  • still segregated,

  • still dramatically in need of change.

  • My school, where I was placed,

  • had no library, no guidance counselor,

  • but it did have a police officer.

  • Half the teachers were substitutes

  • and when students got into fights,

  • the school would send them to the local county jail.

  • This is the school where I met Patrick.

  • He was 15 and held back twice, he was in the eighth grade.

  • He was quiet, introspective,

  • like he was always in deep thought.

  • And he hated seeing other people fight.

  • I saw him once jump between two girls when they got into a fight

  • and he got himself knocked to the ground.

  • Patrick had just one problem.

  • He wouldn't come to school.

  • He said that sometimes school was just too depressing

  • because people were always fighting and teachers were quitting.

  • And also, his mother worked two jobs and was just too tired to make him come.

  • So I made it my job to get him to come to school.

  • And because I was crazy and 22 and zealously optimistic,

  • my strategy was just to show up at his house

  • and say, "Hey, why don't you come to school?"

  • And this strategy actually worked,

  • he started to come to school every day.

  • And he started to flourish in my class.

  • He was writing poetry, he was reading books.

  • He was coming to school every day.

  • Around the same time

  • that I had figured out how to connect to Patrick,

  • I got into law school at Harvard.

  • I once again faced this question, where should I put myself,

  • where do I put my body?

  • And I thought to myself

  • that the Mississippi Delta was a place where people with money,

  • people with opportunity,

  • those people leave.

  • And the people who stay behind

  • are the people who don't have the chance to leave.

  • I didn't want to be a person who left.

  • I wanted to be a person who stayed.

  • On the other hand, I was lonely and tired.

  • And so I convinced myself that I could do more change

  • on a larger scale if I had a prestigious law degree.

  • So I left.

  • Three years later,

  • when I was about to graduate from law school,

  • my friend called me

  • and told me that Patrick had got into a fight and killed someone.

  • I was devastated.

  • Part of me didn't believe it,

  • but part of me also knew that it was true.

  • I flew down to see Patrick.

  • I visited him in jail.

  • And he told me that it was true.

  • That he had killed someone.

  • And he didn't want to talk more about it.

  • I asked him what had happened with school

  • and he said that he had dropped out the year after I left.

  • And then he wanted to tell me something else.

  • He looked down and he said that he had had a baby daughter

  • who was just born.

  • And he felt like he had let her down.

  • That was it, our conversation was rushed and awkward.

  • When I stepped outside the jail, a voice inside me said,

  • "Come back.

  • If you don't come back now, you'll never come back."

  • So I graduated from law school and I went back.

  • I went back to see Patrick,

  • I went back to see if I could help him with his legal case.

  • And this time, when I saw him a second time,

  • I thought I had this great idea, I said,

  • "Hey, Patrick, why don't you write a letter to your daughter,

  • so that you can keep her on your mind?"

  • And I handed him a pen and a piece of paper,

  • and he started to write.

  • But when I saw the paper that he handed back to me,

  • I was shocked.

  • I didn't recognize his handwriting,

  • he had made simple spelling mistakes.

  • And I thought to myself that as a teacher,

  • I knew that a student could dramatically improve

  • in a very quick amount of time,

  • but I never thought that a student could dramatically regress.

  • What even pained me more,

  • was seeing what he had written to his daughter.

  • He had written,

  • "I'm sorry for my mistakes, I'm sorry for not being there for you."

  • And this was all he felt he had to say to her.

  • And I asked myself how can I convince him that he has more to say,

  • parts of himself that he doesn't need to apologize for.

  • I wanted him to feel

  • that he had something worthwhile to share with his daughter.

  • For every day the next seven months,

  • I visited him and brought books.

  • My tote bag became a little library.

  • I brought James Baldwin,

  • I brought Walt Whitman, C.S. Lewis.

  • I brought guidebooks to trees, to birds,

  • and what would become his favorite book, the dictionary.

  • On some days,

  • we would sit for hours in silence, both of us reading.

  • And on other days,

  • we would read together, we would read poetry.

  • We started by reading haikus, hundreds of haikus,

  • a deceptively simple masterpiece.

  • And I would ask him, "Share with me your favorite haikus."

  • And some of them are quite funny.

  • So there's this by Issa:

  • "Don't worry, spiders, I keep house casually."

  • And this: "Napped half the day, no one punished me!"

  • And this gorgeous one, which is about the first day of snow falling,

  • "Deer licking first frost from each other's coats."

  • There's something mysterious and gorgeous

  • just about the way a poem looks.

  • The empty space is as important as the words themselves.

  • We read this poem by W.S. Merwin,

  • which he wrote after he saw his wife working in the garden

  • and realized that they would spend the rest of their lives together.

  • "Let me imagine that we will come again

  • when we want to and it will be spring

  • We will be no older than we ever were

  • The worn griefs will have eased like the early cloud

  • through which morning slowly comes to itself"

  • I asked Patrick what his favorite line was, and he said,

  • "We will be no older than we ever were."

  • He said it reminded him of a place where time just stops,

  • where time doesn't matter anymore.

  • And I asked him if he had a place like that,

  • where time lasts forever.

  • And he said, "My mother."

  • When you read a poem alongside someone else,

  • the poem changes in meaning.

  • Because it becomes personal to that person, becomes personal to you.

  • We then read books, we read so many books,

  • we read the memoir of Frederick Douglass,

  • an American slave who taught himself to read and write

  • and who escaped to freedom because of his literacy.

  • I had grown up thinking of Frederick Douglass as a hero

  • and I thought of this story as one of uplift and hope.

  • But this book put Patrick in a kind of panic.

  • He fixated on a story Douglass told of how, over Christmas,

  • masters give slaves gin

  • as a way to prove to them that they can't handle freedom.

  • Because slaves would be stumbling on the fields.

  • Patrick said he related to this.

  • He said that there are people in jail who, like slaves,

  • don't want to think about their condition,

  • because it's too painful.

  • Too painful to think about the past,

  • too painful to think about how far we have to go.

  • His favorite line was this line:

  • "Anything, no matter what, to get rid of thinking!

  • It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me."

  • Patrick said that Douglass was brave to write, to keep thinking.

  • But Patrick would never know how much he seemed like Douglass to me.

  • How he kept reading, even though it put him in a panic.

  • He finished the book before I did,

  • reading it in a concrete stairway with no light.

  • And then we went on to read one of my favorite books,

  • Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead,"

  • which is an extended letter from a father to his son.

  • He loved this line:

  • "I'm writing this in part to tell you

  • that if you ever wonder what you've done in your life ...

  • you have been God's grace to me,

  • a miracle, something more than a miracle."

  • Something about this language, its love, its longing, its voice,

  • rekindled Patrick's desire to write.

  • And he would fill notebooks upon notebooks

  • with letters to his daughter.

  • In these beautiful, intricate letters,

  • he would imagine him and his daughter going canoeing down the Mississippi river.

  • He would imagine them finding a mountain stream

  • with perfectly clear water.

  • As I watched Patrick write,

  • I thought to myself,

  • and I now ask all of you,

  • how many of you have written a letter to somebody you feel you have let down?

  • It is just much easier to put those people out of your mind.

  • But Patrick showed up every day, facing his daughter,

  • holding himself accountable to her,

  • word by word with intense concentration.

  • I wanted in my own life

  • to put myself at risk in that way.

  • Because that risk reveals the strength of one's heart.

  • Let me take a step back and just ask an uncomfortable question.

  • Who am I to tell this story, as in this Patrick story?

  • Patrick's the one who lived with this pain

  • and I have never been hungry a day in my life.

  • I thought about this question a lot,

  • but what I want to say is that this story is not just about Patrick.

  • It's about us,

  • it's about the inequality between us.

  • The world of plenty

  • that Patrick and his parents and his grandparents

  • have been shut out of.

  • In this story, I represent that world of plenty.

  • And in telling this story, I didn't want to hide myself.

  • Hide the power that I do have.

  • In telling this story, I wanted to expose that power

  • and then to ask,

  • how do we diminish the distance between us?

  • Reading is one way to close that distance.

  • It gives us a quiet universe that we can share together,

  • that we can share in equally.

  • You're probably wondering now what happened to Patrick.

  • Did reading save his life?

  • It did and it didn't.

  • When Patrick got out of prison,

  • his journey was excruciating.

  • Employers turned him away because of his record,

  • his best friend, his mother, died at age 43

  • from heart disease and diabetes.

  • He's been homeless, he's been hungry.

  • So people say a lot of things about reading that feel exaggerated to me.