Reading Our Humanity: Some Thoughts on Intelligence, Disability, and What Makes Us Human

A typical scene in our household

I love reading. I’ve always loved reading. My mom says I taught myself to read, as if language fell out of the sky and into my head in the form of the English alphabet. I devoured books as a kid, priding myself on reading chapter books from beginning to end more than once, challenging myself to read more than one book in full every night of the week. I even feigned illness once when I was nine so I could finish reading Gone with the Wind. I was an English major in college, which basically meant I got to read two novels a week and count it as schoolwork for four years. Reading has always been an integral part of who I am. I love it.

So when Penny was born and the doctors told me she would have an intellectual disability (they called it mental retardation, but that was seven years ago so let’s hope they might use different language now), I grieved the thought that I wouldn’t be able to share my love of reading with my daughter. There was something good in my grief in that it acknowledged this part of myself that I longed to share with my daughter, but there was something ugly about my grief too. It betrayed my assumption that Penny’s life needed an intellectual component in order to matter, in order for us to relate to one another, perhaps even in order to love her.

In time, I let go of my need for Penny to share my love of reading. I trusted that the love I felt for her as a baby would only expand as she grew older. I believed that I would find other ways for us to relate to each other.

Ironically enough, Penny is a bookworm. As I’ve written before, she devours books, much like her mother. She is helping William learn to read. If you ask her to name her favorite activity, her answer will probably be reading (with the monkey bars a close second).

But my early experience of relinquishing the need for reading to be a part of her in order for me to love her still exposed the ways I had idolized intelligence, and reading in particular. I used to base people’s value upon their ability to do certain things, including their intellectual abilities, and Penny’s entrance in my life helped me to see the ways I had cut myself off from the goodness, the worth, the possibilities for loving friendship with those who do not have the same literary aptitude as I do.

So I read my friend Karen Swallow Prior’s recent article for the Atlantic–How Reading Makes Us More Human– with some measure of hesitation. The title itself set off warning bells. Throughout the ages human beings have used intelligence as a way to cull out the unwanted among us, and I worry that conflating our humanity with reading ability (or proclivity) will only lead to discrimination and even death for people with intellectual disabilities. Karen writes:

Reading is one of the few distinctively human activities that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. As many scholars have noted, and Paul too mentions in her piece, reading, unlike spoken language, does not come naturally to human beings. It must be taught. Because it goes beyond mere biology, there is something profoundly spiritual — however one understands that word — about the human ability, and impulse, to read. In fact, even the various senses in which we use the word captures this: to “read” means not only to decipher a given and learned set of symbols in a mechanistic way, but it also suggests that very human act of finding meaning, of “interpreting” in the sense of “reading” a person or situation. To read in this sense might be considered one of the most spiritual of all human activities.

Again, these thoughts concerned me, and yet I resonated with much of her argument. She describes her own experience:

As I relayed in my literary and spiritual memoir, the books I have read over a lifetime have shaped my worldview, my beliefs, and my life as much as anything else. From Great Expectations I learned the power the stories we tell ourselves have to do either harm and good, to ourselves and to others; fromDeath of a Salesman I learned the dangers of a corrupt version of the American Dream; from Madame Bovary, I learned to embrace the real world rather than escaping into flights of fancy; from Gulliver’s Travels I learned the profound limitations of my own finite perspective; and from Jane Eyre I learned how to be myself. These weren’t mere intellectual or moral lessons, although they certainly may have begun as such. Rather, the stories from these books and so many others became part of my life story and then, gradually, part of my very soul.

Like Karen, I do believe that reading has enhanced my own humanity and in particular my ability to empathize, to imagine the world from another point of view. Moreover, reading has opened up a world of possibilities for Penny.

I wrote Karen to express some of the ways her post resonated with me and also concerned me. Her response to my concerns and questions will appear on this blog tomorrow.

Meanwhile–what books have shaped your view of the world? Has reading made you more human? In what ways?

 

My Questions About the Ethics of Embryo Selection
The Best Book About Writing Ever (and other great reads)
Politics, Down Syndrome, and What I'm Reading
Thank you Patheos! (And Continuing the Conversation at Christianity Today)
About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).


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