Posing a Literary Invitation

openPray thee, take care, that tak’st my book in hand,
To read it well: that is, to understand.
-Ben Jonson, Epigram I

Go, and take the little book which is open in the hand. Take it, and eat it up; and it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey, but it shall make thy belly bitter.
Revelation x

Oh, Grow to know me. I am not happy. I will be open.
-Muriel Rukeyser, “Effort at Speech Between Two People”

A reader is subject to invitations. A book is closed, but it might be opened. Is it worth the risk?

A literary invitation is private and particular as well as open and universal. From each encounter it seeks acceptance and a certain amount of attention.

What the invitation has to accomplish is intrigue, and so provocation is its nature.

An invitation might be considered a kind of a promise, albeit an ambivalent one, and so no invitation is accepted without just hesitation.

Of the receiver little is required but to attend; some trust is involved.

The question that hangs at the end of the invitation is vulnerability. Care must be taken on both ends.

I once heard the poet Jane Hirshfield describe a practice of seeking the divine in every stranger. She demonstrated this by tilting her head sideways inquisitively, peering at the invisible stranger and saying “Buddha?” with the smile of someone on the cusp of recognition. This is an old idea. To the Greeks the gods always dwelt in the most unlikely form. It’s an idea with positive social implications; imagine everyone treating each other like gods.

When I think about it, I am a person who approaches invitations in a very guarded way. Will my attendance be rewarded? What will it cost? Is it the right time? My hands are up, palms outward in that gesture we use to mean non-involvement. When I think about it, I wonder what I’ve missed with my hands in this shape.

What if in our conception of books as objects we embedded the act of opening into the book-form in order to ready ourselves to receive/read? In other words, to open a book we have to become open ourselves. It isn’t easy or safe. It might take practice. We have to understand outer appearance as potentially misleading. We have to conduct our minds the way a person might conduct a group of diverse instruments into a sort of fugue that will actively build toward understanding. Curiosity can vibrate in its own tone along with unbias, generosity, various experiences, conscious moderation of judgement and all the other particular things a particular invitation might invoke.

Once our minds are composed, once we’ve gotten past appearances, the last obstacle is fear. I think the cost of accepting an invitation might be a willingness to be bruised, or punctured or burdened. Maybe this is the offering a reader makes when approaching a text or accepting an invitation. Maybe the interchange between book and reader has a sort of sacred aspect to it in that the reader makes an offering in order to receive something in return, and the nature of this thing is unknown until the moment it arrives. Fear and potential should be balanced, and the reader should decide which is weightier.

It is risky to accept an invitation, but is it riskier to refuse?


2 thoughts on “Posing a Literary Invitation

  1. “Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, eat that thou findest; eat this scroll, and go speak unto the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he caused me to eat that scroll. And he said unto me, Son of man, cause thy belly to eat, and fill thy bowels with this scroll that I give thee. Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.” – Ezekiel 3:1-3

    I think it’s interesting that, as in John’s Revelation, the eating of the book is merely the first step in the prophet’s opening himself up to/becoming a conduit for divine enunciation. A risk indeed! The idea that the books we consume will later issue forth from us in the form of (involuntary?) speech makes clear how much autonomy is sacrificed in the giving of oneself over to the words of another. The King James Version above translates the Hebrew very literally where it says “he caused me to eat.” This is in fact a causative form of the verb, and does powerful work in establishing the way that the prospective prophet’s agency is compromised by accepting his vocation. John, by contrast, seems to have a different task: the more demanding act of taking and consuming of his own volition, having been forewarned how sweet and bitter this work will be. (Of course this attention to the pain of prophecy draws on other visions of the initiation which are inflected with transformative suffering, like Isaiah’s coal-burned mouth…)

    We, on the other hand, are always able to close the book — because we are animate and the book is not — where for the prophet-eater it’s too late: his consumption is decisive, and the book has an animate advocate in its seraphic attendant … How does our power to physically interrupt/disavow the relationship with our books change the balance of sweet and bitter in our reading?


    1. I love that you respond to me with Ezekiel. I very nearly epigraphed Elliot’s “Wasteland” invitation to “(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)” which situates the reader right in the midst of these Word-perils. I think the question of whether or not a book can be closed is complicated. The act of reading is ingestive. What we ingest sticks to us. Even when a reader decides to abandon a book mid-text, to close it, the closure is often incomplete/impermanent; I find that material once read has the curious tendency to resurface, often unbidden. I think Isaiah’s trial is an excellent and beautiful image in this regard, because though the burning was for him a purification, it might also be read as a metaphor for the high stakes of making the choice to engage with words, to open the book, or to unroll the scroll.


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