Perception has been a central theme in my work over the years, particularly in relation to its effect on our capacity to live lives we know to be deeply meaningful. I’m interested in the powerful role reading plays in shaping how I perceive myself and my world, and in reading’s contribution, at a most fundamental level, to creating meaning in my life. I’m interested in how reading reaches out into possibility and brings it into my reality.
This effect is not particular to me. It’s a universal phenomenon. But it’s my personal experience of it that prompts me to gather discarded books, and to fire up my band saw, pick up my oxypropane torch, and stir my dye pots.
The objects I make have to do with the imperfect alignment between our perceptions and Objective Reality, and with our subjective investment in those perceptions.
They’re responses to and reflections on my life experience, which is deeply informed by what I read.
I put those objects in public spaces to invite conversation — a meeting of hearts and minds, a revisiting of how we see ourselves and the world, an engagement about what’s meaningful in life.
Finite creatures that we are, we can only take in and process so much information from our environment. A minuscule portion, actually. Over the millennia, our organisms have evolved to identify, interpret and engage with the teeny subset of Objective Reality required to insure our survival. The rest just doesn’t register (e. g., dark matter and UV light), or doesn’t register as meaningful (e.g., the length of the hair on my arms and the color of the blades on the lawn mower).
Over each of our lifetimes, our experience further shapes our neural and psychological systems, refining what registers and what it means, to a personal, highly particular expression.
In short, what’s meaningful to us contributes to what shreds of Objective Reality we actually see and how we see them. And what we see and how we see constitute our selves and our worlds.
If this conversation took place only at this abstracted and rarified level, it would be akin to doing mental calisthenics, tedious for many, lovely and recreational for others. But “What is meaningful?” is a distilled rendition of “What makes life meaningful?”, which is itself a sanitized and safe version of an urgent, vital and sometimes excruciating question: “Is my life meaningful?”
Right here, the rubber hits the road.
I’m interested in reading’s essential contribution to asking and responding to that existential question:
“Is my life meaningful?”
Expressed this way could suggest that reading’s a solitary activity, but I know it to be a profoundly relational activity, and powerful precisely because of its relational character. In The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Paul Elie expresses this quality well in his discussion of his four subjects’ writing, so I quote him at length here:
Set as it is on the border between life and art, between faith and doubt, [their writing] describes [the religious] experience with rare clarity and power. What is more—and this is, perhaps, what makes it persuasive—it dramatizes that experience in such a way that the reader enters into it personally through a kind of radical identification with the protagonist. At its best, it is writing that one reads with one’s whole life, testing the work against one’s own life, and vice versa…Certain books, certain writers, reach us at the center of ourselves, and we come to them in fear and trembling, in hope and expectation—reading so as to change, and perhaps, to save, our lives…In their different ways, the four writers this book is about sought the truth personally—in charity, in prayer, in art, in philosophy. Their writing was the most personal way of all, for in the act of reading and writing one stranger and another go forth to meet in an encounter of the profoundest sort.
In reading I engage intimately in a vast conversation across the centuries and continents about what is meaningful in life, in my life.
I noted above that our experience contributes to shaping what we see and how we interpret it. Given the discrete nature of each of our experiences, our perceptions and interpretations tend to be likewise finite, circumscribed, even narrow. The power of reading rests in its potential to broaden our capacity to see and to interpret. What this means on a personal level is that reading offers possibility. Possibility for my seeing a broader reality than my genetic wiring and personal experience would otherwise incline me to see. Possibility for experiencing my life as meaningful in ways I otherwise could never have imagined.
There’s so much more to say about how reading, and how thinking about reading, have affected me and found expression in my work over the decades…. About how narrative functions at a most fundamental level in our psychologies—how we are the stories we tell. About how reading operates in the brain, its neural expression and the traces it leaves. About the perversion of possibility: the limiting and oppressive potential of reading—controlling what is read, by whom and how—and Power’s potential appropriation of social structures (education, library, publishing, etc.) to propagate particular perspectives congenial to its purposes.
But I mean here only to offer some comments on the wellspring of my work. I’ll leave erudite treatment of these topics and others for those far more gifted with words, and will return to my band saw, oxyacetylene torch, sander, drill, spindle, dye pots and loom—I’ll return to making objects out of the intimate space in which I engage with what I read.