Friday, September 21, 2012

Death by reading

“Oh my God, we are going to die.”

After three years of living and working in conflict and post-conflict zones around the world, I did not expect to hear the above sentence uttered outside a library in Boston, Massachusetts.

“We are going to die, I’m telling you.”

This time it is neither of cholera nor of rocket fire, neither of a mine nor of malaria. You see, we will allegedly die of . . . reading.

“Four hundred pages. A thousand. Eighteen thousand six hundred and fifty eight.” People try to calculate the number of pages we will have to read per week to complete our graduate coursework in law and diplomacy. We signed up for this, just as we did for that stint of work in Sudan or Colombia, in Uganda or on the Iraq border, and our freedom to parachute in and—most importantly—out will always make every page turn feel like a privilege to me. Imminent death does not feel like autumnal breeze, the laws of humanitarian intervention, or blank pages waiting for ideas to populate them.
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If there came a moment of grief for me in this process, it had to do with having Susan Sontag stare at me every morning. It is the first time I can call a bookcase my own since I lived in my childhood home in Greece. It is firmly planted here, as am I—ready for roots to grow past suitcases and for books to gather dust on a shelf in a way that anchors me in place and time. When I celebrated the symbols of permanence, I had underestimated the power of book spines to stare you down on your way to yet another class with “Conflict” in the title.

They stare because they remember the era when you made time in your life for conflict and dreaming, for imaginary journeys and real footsteps in daring directions. It was the era of reading a book a day or a week, of carving out room for writing your own. Susan Sontag has a way of reminding me of previous selves and the reasons I loved them. “Man, you look . . . dead. Dead tired,” someone will inevitably remark as I leave the library. Eyes may look weary behind glasses, but they now know to make time for Susan Sontag. She nags quietly from the shelf, making sure I carry the past into the present, forcing me to weave dreams together that previously seemed disparate.

Click on to The Equals Project today to read what is squeezed between Fighting for Darfur and Understanding Peacekeeping on those shelves that anchor me.

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