Reading Dangerously

How many times have you put a book down because its content was too disturbing, or thrown it against a wall in anger? Just recently I started reading a novel by J M G Le Clezio, last year’s Nobel prize winner, entitled Étoile errante, or Wandering Star. The essence of a Nobel prize winner is, I think, to produce fiction that fearlessly addresses issues and ideas that most writers don’t wish to elaborate upon, probably for fear of being uncommercial or elitist or too damn depressing to please their editors. I tend to think of them as being the authors who deserve a prize for getting their work published despite its subject matter and who continue to grind their axes, regardless of the small circulation of their works, and the dismissive comments from reviewers who think things really can’t be that bad. (And this is why Americans, with their positivity and their tendency to eschew abstract ideas-driven novels don’t win so very often.)

Anyhow, Le Clezio fits right into this category. The story concerns Esther, initially known as Hélène, since she is living in the south of France in 1943 just before the Nazis invaded. The first section of the novel sees her fleeing over the mountains to Italy with her mother and the rest of the Jewish community who can make it, a physically demanding, emotionally traumatic exile that also finds her losing her father to resistance activities. The war ends, but there is no peace for Esther and her mother, who, penniless and grieving still, decide to make the trip to Palestine in the hope of finding a homeland. But the mentality of exile and abandonment has now seeped into the narrative, and the journey abroad is fraught with uncertainty and discomfort, Esther forced into a premature adulthood by her mother’s deteriorating mental condition.

Around about now, I started skipping ahead and found that two-thirds of the way through Esther was in another refugee camp, this one in the grip of a cholera outbreak and that she was being offered the possibility of escape, knowing that to do so would mean leaving friends behind her to die.

At this point, I put the book down and walked away from it. I felt the most terrific wimp, because I’ve always maintained that this kind of literature must exist. That we have to represent and read the stories of the marginalized, the dispossessed, the tormented, to save ourselves from complacency and easy self-righteousness, to open our minds to the plight of others and to remember the lessons of history in their bleak, uncompromising detail. And Le Clezio is a beautiful stylist. His writing is elegant and expressive, and he simply presents the story without sentimentality or sensationalism. I ought to have finished it but, even though I was reading in French, which helps with distance sometimes, I could not.

So I was intrigued to come across a recent post at The Reading Experience, in which this question of self-protection in reading is raised. Dan is arguing against another blogger, Rebecca Wells Jopling at OnFiction who suggests that ‘Perhaps strong feelings of rejection toward a story and the resulting strategies for distancing oneself arise because readers somehow know that continuing to read may leave them walking around holding beliefs that they do not want to hold, having thoughts that they do not want to have, and re-experiencing images that they do not want to re-experience.’ For Dan, this doesn’t compute, and he counters that ‘Unless the authors […] are confining themselves to the most naive and most unadventurous of readers, it’s very difficult to accept that the fear of alien thoughts, images, or beliefs motivates many readers’ responses to aesthetically credible novels, or any works of narrative art, for that matter. The very need to “distance ourselves” in the emotionally immediate way described in this post only really testifies to a flawed, unreflective way of reading fiction.’

I always want to weigh in on this kind of argument, which risks degenerating into two camps, one of which yells to the other ‘You can’t make me do what I don’t want to do,’ whilst the other yells back, ‘Sissies!’ I think that the question of what we let in and what we close down to, in the intimate and challenging business of reading is, in fact, a complex and delicate question, and one that goes to the heart of the reading process. I think that every single reader has a cherished ideology, a system of beliefs and preferences, that is opened up to challenge and risk through the act of reading. How we respond to the books we read tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the book we are reading, if we care to listen to the information. In my time I have read just about everything on the spectrum for my work, books that feature all kinds of violence, all forms of mental and emotional breakdown, all sorts of traumas and tragedies. But I read those books for work. I read them with all the tools of my trade at my disposal that made me pay as much attention to the style and the preoccupations of the author, as it did to the horrors of the page. And precisely because I was going to allow these books in to mess with my head, I needed protective strategies against them. It struck me forcibly that trying to read Le Clezio when I was not about to teach it made it a process that simply impinged in a distressing way on my tender heart. The ‘unreflective’ way of reading that Dan mentions here is the way most people read, if they have not had the benefit of a literary training; it is the way that I found myself reading, when I had no pressing need to reflect.

Challenging our own beliefs is perhaps one of the hardest but most necessary things we ever do. We underestimate how difficult it is to think beyond our comfort zones, to consider outside of our personal convictions. If we manage to let books in that shake up and rearrange our ideas, then we deserve credit for listening, and we must bow down before the extraordinary ability of reading to open us up and shine daylight into the locked down zones of our minds. It is the most important thing reading does, and the fundamental reason why we should read at all. But we might have to read a hundred books, two hundred, before we arrive at the right book, and the right context, to have that one experience of epiphany. The fact remains that however educated or not we are, however liberal and open we think ourselves to be, we still have frozen, blind areas. Dan’s post focused exclusively on reading fiction, but if we argue that reading is reading is reading, whatever the subject matter, then we might see that his statement ‘That I would try to actively resist the work’s effects–emotional, psychological, or formal–seems antithetical to my understanding of what a “reading experience” has to offer’ is itself quite a forceful act of protection over a cherished, but limited and entirely subjective, belief. We can attempt to dictate to people on many issues, but one thing we cannot tell each other is what an experience should feel like or what it must offer.

There is a quirky coda to my sorry tale of Le Clezio, in that shortly after putting this novel down, I agreed to work with a student on a literary dissertation for the first time in four years. I was thrilled by the idea of working with books again and the student in question is a delight. And the project? The Holocaust. I’m finding that even with the shield of work firmly in place, these are deeply distressing, uncomfortable, disquieting books, as indeed they would have to be. I can sympathise with any reader who would want to put them down, or throw them against the wall and it is only the ‘distancing’ search for meaning in them, the possibility of creating something true and real and perceptive about them that gets me through the reading at all.

23 thoughts on “Reading Dangerously

  1. Personally I find the views expressed in The Book Experience post a little strange. The idea that the intense experience of the strong emotions and images within a novel are sufficiently distanced by knowledge of all other aspects of the novel seems extremly alien to me. I appreciate and notice things like technique, point of view while reading, but I get swept away by the emotion of certain books and if something really terrible happens I flinch away. Maybe, I’m not quite understanding the point he’s trying to make…

    However I obviously distance myself from novels in various ways, which I’d never really thought about before. For example, I’m quite able to read historical non-fiction that deal with violence (ex-history student distance) or crime novels (I’m guessing this has something to do with them being genre fiction and so tapping into the idea that they are ‘just a story’). However I find it extremly difficult to read about violence in Africa, when the novel is set closer to the present day.

    Your idea that someone claiming they don’t distance themselves acting as a form of protection is, I think, spot on. It’s a blind spot in itself.

  2. I have put books down before because I find them too upsetting. For a long time I felt guilty about this, because I do recognize the point that, as you say, it’s important to write about terrible things and remember dark times in our history and in our present. I mostly have stopped feeling guilty about it, though. I struggle with anxiety and depression, and there are times when I just can’t face a book as dark as the one you describe. Maybe it is down to what you say – that they challenge my basically positive view of humanity – and that’s why I can’t get on with them. (Eek, guilt!) But at this point, reading for me is often a way of taking myself out of myself; and it’s a bad coping device if it just plunges me into deeper sadness and anxiety.

    This is a most thought-provoking post.

  3. What a thought-provoking post! I think there is something to be said for self-protection in reading. I have a friend who won’t read books with scenes of incest or molestation. She won’t say why but I suspect she has personal life experience with the issue and reading about it in a book brings up things she would rather not be reminded of.

    For readers in general though, or maybe I should just speak for myself, I think it is not a matter of beliefs being challenged but one of a loss of innoncence of sorts. I know there are plenty of horrors in the world but sometimes I just can’t or don’t want to bear facing them. There are plenty of things I already know about and despair over and sometimes I am just not up to adding to that. Maybe it’s my American positivity getting in the way😉

  4. What a thought provoking post. I really need to consider it and my own reactions when reading. One thing that I would add to the discussion is that a little goes a long way in fiction.

    I’m often surprised at that when I hear reader’s responses. The human imagination can take small details, the occasional scene, and enlarge it to fill the whole mental screen.

    So it may be that a book mostly occupied with pain, disaster, torture, sickness, and abandonment takes up more mental space than one would think from a simple computation of literal space in the day.

    Whether that’s good or bad or how to accommodate it or why, I want to think over.

  5. So is this about something like “taste for reflection”? I’m definitely in Dan Green’s camp, as a reader. Many of the books I read, if not read reflectively, are not worth reading. So I reflect, and reflect some more. But my “taste for reflection” or “taste for difficulty” is probably unusually high, compared to most people.

    But probably not compared to you! Thus, an alternative theory:

    I do not read literature professionally. Maybe your taste for relective reading is sated by your professional reading, so in your leisure reading you look for other qualities. My professional reading definitely does not sate my desire for reflective reading, so I look for that in my leisure reading.

    The ethical argument in your next-to-last paragraph is powerfully stated. It hits me directly. I think I’m very open to whatever a book has to give me. But in fact, I rarely have that epiphanic experience. Maybe as a veteran reader, that experience is not going to be available too often. Or maybe I’m resisting more than I realize, reading less like Dan Green than I think.

  6. it’s very difficult to accept that the fear of alien thoughts, images, or beliefs motivates many readers’ responses to aesthetically credible novels

    Ah, but Dan has thoroughly missed ths point of what makes art disquieting, hasn’t he? It’s not the alien we fear and cringe away from; it’s the painfully familiar. One of the most necessary and terrifying roles of art is to serve as a mirror, and perhaps it is arguable that when the self is recognized in a novel set in seemingly unfamiliar territory with a protagonist to whom we would not ordinarily relate, the pain of recognition is magnified by the very strangeness of somehow not being a stranger in a strange land.

    A case in point might be Lolita . You remarked at one point that you wonder whether it might be an easier book for men to read. That rang true for me; despite the psychological/emotional/subtextual complexity and distastefulness of the book, it doesn’t bother me, because it doesn’t show me to myself particularly. I’m not much like any of the men in the book, and I don’t relate particularly to the female characters, either. So despite the true horror of that book, it’s a fairly easy book for me to read.

    Conversely, there is a book by Antonia White, called Beyond the Glass , which I find almost intolerably disturbing, though I have read it several times; it is a fictional account of her own real-life descent into insanity, and how she “cured” herself while incarcerated in an insane asylum. It’s incredible literature, resonant on so many levels, and for many people it would not be disturbing in quite the same way. But it’s not painful for me to read because it’s alien; quite the reverse.

  7. Very interesting. I guess this is the way I’d look at it…there are people who I just wouldn’t want as friends – for a number of reasons. Perhaps it’s because I never feel good when I’m around them, or because they can’t debate without being combative, or they are just not much fun – not a good companion. We all read for differnt reasons. There are things I must read to stay current with my profession. But when I read on my own time, I want a companion (i.e. book) that is meaningful to me in some way. This is the problem I had with The Book Thief. I loved the book, it was beautifully written, but it was heartbreaking and stayed with me for way too long. So, I had trouble recommending it to others. It was like “Wow, this book is terrific, but….” I would never go back and re-read it. I guess I’m in the sissy column.

  8. Litlove, another provocative post of yours. I think that every reader has his limits, and they’re all different. I don’t think Dan or Rebecca has the corner on the market. It’s not either/or here, as it seems, more and/but.

    _Lolita_ bored me, on every level when I read it in the 1990s. Maybe having gone through, where I then lived, scandals about priests and Christian Brothers b***ering little boys in orphanages and elsewhere made Humbert Humbert seem old news. Literature is always second to life. But also, previous reading convinced me that I preferred other styles, so that Nabokov’s words didn’t do much for me.

    Now, if someone had crassly written the same story Clezio told, perhaps it would not affect you in the same way. It might also be an insult to the people, and predicaments, Clezio has seen occur in history. Since it did affect you, then it can only be considered affective (on you, and a segment of the reading population), which is an experience Dan/Rebecca want to turn into an ideology, or psychology.

    I think throwing the book against the wall is an interesting experience, and I wonder what prompts that feeling. Literature can’t compete with life, and maybe some people don’t want it to. I don’t think that it makes someone a wimp if, on reading Clezio, they want to put the book down, shaken but not shaken entirely. It’s a testament to the book’s power, the author’s power over words, and the relationship that can exist between the author and reader. (Not all relationships are good for both.)

    If Clezio’s novel is affecting, and stirs up negative feelings, in you and other readers, then that may be his intent. If someone doesn’t like the intent, for whatever reasons, then that’s a choice (and yes, that may be a failing – for instance, a Holocaust denier would have a very singular response to it that might be characterized as a “moral failure”); but recognizing that a book is powerful and that you and it aren’t suited, while also acknowledging what has been achieved (as far as one reads in it), is maybe the most catholic path. And once again, you demonstrate that liberality of mind for which your blog is so valued.

  9. Litlove, this quotation may be apt:

    “Writing is difficult and ‘strange,’ insofar as its vision of reality is unlike our vision of reality. Some writing is so remote from us that it cannot be read at all—it repels us, or, on the contrary, seduces us. We pretend that this writing is the manifestation of a private vision, that it ‘sees’ a world, a reality, wholly different from our own. Nothing could be further from the truth. We sequester this writing, we call it exotic, or weird, or skewed, because otherwise we would be faced with the intolerable proposition that the reality such writing offers is, indeed, our own, but that we cannot, though we live in the middle of it, recognize it.”
    – Gilbert Sorrentino

  10. I tried to read The Book Thief and found that it was just too painful for me at the time. I imagine I could finish it now. But perhaps books like this demand a lot more from us than we are able to give when we are reading for entertainment. Sometimes I’m easily overwhelmed by trauma and I’d rather avoid it. I feel guilty for doing so but as Lilian says, a little can go a long way. And if it’s topping up a traumatic imagination which is already pretty full then I’m all for taking a break.

  11. I think you are absolutely right about different ways of reading. I studied Lolita as an undergraduate (Brian Boyd who is a world expert on Nabokov was the lecturer)and voluntarily chose to write about. Viewed through an analytical lense paying close attention to the writing and the imagery it’s brilliantly crafted. Years later I tried to read it again as a mother with a two year old daughter and it made me so nauseous I actually threw the book away. I felt revulsion to the thought of even having it in my house. I’ve also done research on battered women syndrome and evidential issues in child sex abuse so I’ve read a lot of cases and other policy and academic materials in these areas. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it but I didn’t feel traumatized by it. However, I will never, ever voluntarily read fictional depictions of these things.

    People definitely have different triggers depending on where they are at and their life experiences. I think it’s sensible to know yourself and your limits and to protect your mental health. I sometimes wonder if some of the people who are staunch about reading the most horrific material possibly have led rather sheltered lives. I know I could stomach holocaust literature etc quite easily when I was 14. But once you’ve been around and experienced more of the everyday horror and tragedy of the world and the fragility of the existing order it doesn’t really seem like it’s something one needs conscious raising about. In fact, it seems more like something to work at not thinking about 24/7 so that it’s possible to continue functioning.

  12. Blogging friends, you are marvellous! A set of wonderfully sensitive and intelligent comments here.

    Jodie – you have Dan’s argument quite right. To be rigorously fair, there is another part of the post which I don’t quote, in which he says he gives himself over to books and responds as he feels they dictate, which would include a flinch or two, I guess. The two points are not side by side in his account, but I imagine that critical distance does mitigate emotional responsiveness. I agree with you that no reading techniques can really mollify some of the events one has to encounter, and so the question of openness and its potential for pain in reading does remain. Very interesting to think of areas where you can identify some ready-made defences, and I agree wholeheartedly that books about violence in Africa are impossible to read. I’ve fallen at that hurdle too. And it’s interesting because I’ve never been there, and don’t distinguish it from any other great and terrible conflict. But there’s something about the African style of writing, often so open itself, that is touching to the point of being intolerable.

    Jenny – I really do think it’s absolutely fine to put down books that are just too sad or upsetting for the moment. There may be other times when it’s okay to pick them up, and some sort of unusual inrush of determination or stability sees us through to the end. But I think it would be wrong to lay ourselves flat open to every passing book about trauma and let it do to us what it will. No point in being a victim of one’s reading, right?🙂 Defences are there for excellent reasons, usually. People who can read the tough stuff with fewer nightmares just have better internal defences in the first place, I think.

    Stefanie – I really do agree with you. There is no point in being thoroughly upset by a mere novel, after all. You could turn on the news and be upset if that was what you wanted, and with more justification! There is no need for people to force themselves through heartbreaking books just to say they’ve done it. And I quite understand about the pointlessness of reading about events that make you want to act when no real action is available. When I read such books, I was going to teach them or write about them, and feeble as these actions may be, I always did feel that it was something, and an ethically necessary something, too. Without that sense, I would have found it all much harder going. (And I love American positivity – so much nicer than British grumpiness!🙂 )

    Lilian – you are absolutely right about how a little can go a long way in fiction. And I infinitely prefer books in which that little is put to good use and my imagination can take over. I’m no great fan of the postmodern violence book in which everything is spelled out in cinematic detail. Imaginations are tremendously powerful and can weave material out of a small amount of input for days, sometimes without us being fully conscious. I’m finding the Holocaust material keeps popping up for me at unexpected times and places, and this is not particularly helpful. The rights and wrongs of the situation are complex. You read what you can, I think, and reflect well on whatever it is you read. And that’s the best any of us can do. I’m always uncomfortable with telling people what they should or shouldn’t do, and I’m certainly not about to do that as far as reading is concerned.🙂

    Amateur Reader – I’m not really reading professionally these days and so I am out of the habit. Sometimes I fear that I have somehow used up or worn out my capacity for reading about painful, distressing situations. Doing this work on the Holocaust is taking me to the limits of my tolerance for the unpleasant (although that is probably apt and reasonable). But it is such a habit to read reflexively that I doubt I could stop even if I wanted to!

    I think you do have a natural inclination towards complex texts, and to follow through on that is wonderful. And I do think that the more one reads, the harder it is to be shocked and shaken, unless you chose books that will obviously do so. Otherwise one must experiment completely out of the comfort zone, with chick-lit say, or contemporary French science fiction. But everyone resists here and there; we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. It’s quite fun tracking the points of resistance down, though, and I am always watching for them in myself.

  13. David – you get the rosette for the comment I most wish I had thought of myself. That is exactly what I was grappling with saying and not quite getting there. It is precisely the disquietingly familiar that freaks you out. Lolita was getting under my skin because I couldn’t bear the way that HH’s intelligence fails to control his demonic desire. I like to see intelligence win, and I like intelligence to be put only to good use. So it touched a couple of buttons there. As for Antonia White, I’ve read elsewhere that she is one tough read. Years ago I read Down Below by Leonora Carrington, a very similar tale, and once I’d put the book down I felt that I was reeling around the room needing to clasp onto the furniture to be sure that it was solid. Not good.

    Grad – I seem to be in the same camp as you!🙂 But seriously, people do read for all kinds of reasons, and it’s not right to try to tell them what they ought and ought not to do. It’s only reading, for heaven’s sake. I also think it’s perfectly possible to be challenged by a book that contains no accounts of atrocities. It can be right in the comfort zone and still be sly and mischevious or simply surprising. It all depends on the right book falling at the right time. But you know what? Those law books were something I could never get my head around in a million years!🙂

    JB – First of all thank you for the Sorrentino quote, which strikes me as extremely apt. My experience of the otherness he describes came when I started reading continental fiction in my teens. The ideas were so strange and unusual and beautiful – reading those books altered my vision and led to much learning.

    I quite agree that everyone has limits and resistances, and I think they are inevitable and dynamic. My limits at 40 are quite different to my limits at 20. And you are quite right that Le Clezio was intolerable for me because he was such a good writer. For this reason he moved me, and if I put the book down this week, when my sensitivities seem heightened, there are certainly reasons why I might return to it in the future. His prose is worth it. It’s true that literature cannot compete with life; instead it crystallises it, clarifies it, sharpens its edges and emphasises its paradoxes. That in itself can be intolerable some days. And thank you for the kind words. My general rule is to let no one off the hook, beginning with myself.🙂

    Pete – What kind of people would we be if we willingly forced ourselves through unpalatable experience after unpalatable experience? That can hardly be a picture of mental health in itself. Reading is good for many things, it soothes and comforts as much as it challenges and demands, and all its functions are necessary. It’s funny, isn’t it, how some times you can read something and be relatively unaffected and at others it tears the heart right out of you. Now if only I knew why such variations existed, I’d really be getting somewhere.🙂

    Amanda – your experience is so very similar to mine. I researched and wrote about child abuse, and whilst it was painful and horrid, I could do it without lasting difficulty. Pick one of those books up now? I’d never get past the third page. I was doing something with them, at the time, making something useful out of them, and for that reason, the experience was bearable. I also agree completely that I have become more sensitized to traumatic and upsetting events as I’ve grown older and more experienced. And motherhood changes everything. Terrible things happening to children is one of my big no-go areas, precisely as you say, so that I can keep mothering with some level of equanimity (not a great level, but some!).

  14. Odd. I was just thinking upon the extraordinary power of language to jump-start, short-circuit, mislead the imagination – though not quite in the same terms as your post.

    I’m reading ‘Cloud Atlas’ and I’m finding it an incredibly vivid, vivifying experience. In particular, some of the images I’ve read have quite quickly taken on a sort of ‘remembered’ quality. I keep finding myself struck by a weird sense of deja vu; mistaking places in the novel for places I’ve been to, or remembering the sort of smell that is described. I feel like I’m writing my own memories, or rather that someone else is. It’s very like the sensation of looking at yourself in an old photo doing something you don’t remember doing, and by a gradual process of gentle fabrication eventually convincing yourself that you do in fact remember the exact sequence of events that lead to the photo being taken; so much so that the misremembered image soon becomes the centre-piece of a well-worn anecdote.

    I don’t know how much of this can be attributed to language itself, or the quality of the writing, or what I ate last night, but it’s certainly strangely disorientating and quite exciting.

    Amazing things, books.🙂

  15. Wonderful and thought-provoking post. I love the image of the two groups shouting at each other: “‘You can’t make me do what I don’t want to do,’ whilst the other yells back, ‘Sissies!’” Lol! I read both to expand my mind, to push the envelope of my comfort level, to experience new things, but also to find commonalities, to hypnotize, soothe and comfort myself. I wonder after reading your post what I’m resisting subconsciously, when. Good to reflect on, thank you🙂

  16. Your post makes me think about the different ways I respond to reading vs. listening to books; I’ve become aware of the way I’m much less distanced from a work when I listen to it — I’m much more likely to respond emotionally. For me, the way my reading tends to be slow with lots of reflective breaks means that I usually have a critical distance, whereas if I’m listening, I get caught up in the flow of the story and the reader’s voice. It’s interesting to think about how our training or lack of it and the method we take a book in (reading or listening, pausing or not) can influence our emotional response.

  17. I know this isn’t exactly what you were writing about, but your discussion of books’ power to disturb gave me a much needed reminder of why literature is important and relevant to our lives.

  18. I completely agree with davidrochester’s assessment that it’s reading what is most familiar to us that is most painful. (Does that mean that often the most difficult books for me are just ones that are poorly written, because I’m afraid I’m a poor writer?) Also, sometimes (especially with nonfiction, I find) those of us who read and read and read will get to a point at which we find ourselves thinking, “I just can’t bare to read yet another book about the horrors of Apartheid or the Holocaust or a poor child whose mother was so neglectful or father so controlling and distant.” There’s education, and those books NEED to be out there to teach those who may not know about such horrors, but there is also overkill.

  19. Phew! (and Wow!) I’m positively reeling from reading all this -first LitLove’s very thought-provoking post and then all this challenging and enlightening ‘conversation’! There’s so much here that rings bells for me that it feels as though I’ve stumbled into a group of expert campanologists (if that’s the right word) My ears are still ringing (with delight, mainly)

    Thank you, LitLove and all of you. I feel I’ve just devoured a very sustaining and delicious meal and I now need to have time to digest it. I’m off to bed to sleep on it all and see what dreams it brings.

    Maybe in the morning my thoughts will have gathered themselves enough to focus properly on at least some of the points being made. Meanwhile, Cloud Atlas – what a fantastic way of describing the effect of this fantastic book.

  20. I find myself thinking about why I write to help answer why I read. I often write from pain and outrage. Writing is one place this is allowed. When I write I try to be completely honest. I realize I can only be honest to the moment, and only to the piece of reality that is poking me at the time. I wrote a poem about my mother onc that was compltely true in the moment and the aspect, but completely false in the long arc of our relationship. Is the poem less true for that? I don’t think so. When I write, especially the dark matter, I don’t know if anyone will ever want to read it. I do think that perhaps a few readers will sigh with relief that someone else knows something of their own internal/external history. Since I also try to figure stuff out as I right, I hope too that any insights i can titrate might be useful to someone else. But just like in conversations with in-person friends, I know that there are a few who are willing to hear and many who are not, and like myself, many who cannot hear today, but might tomorrow, and many who have their own pockets of dark that are chasing them through their days and that’s quite enough.

    I would listen to more from friends than I would from strangers on any given day, out of love. But reading, it seems to me isn’t for the benefit of the author, but for my own benefit. And that’s comprised of lots, as all the comments above reveal. What do I need to learn today to be responsible today or in the future? What do I need today to soothe me, just make it through today? Where is wisdom? and would falling into despair do me or anybody any good?

    As I get older I am more prone to despair. This is a fact that I didn’t expect and don’t like. I can’t think about polar bears — I can’t save them on my own, and can’t bear the thought of them leaving. I can’t fix this. As a 20-year old I though I could fix anything, so all the dark just set out the territory into which I knew to take my charger and sword. Now it’s not so easy.

    Honest writers write because they need to, and do us all a favor by making visible and conscious that part of our shared humanity. But we can’t all take all of life in on any give day (or even decade).

    Litlove…thanks thanks thanks for this great post/discussion.

  21. Mark – books are amazing things indeed, and also amazing is the way you talk about them. I love what you say here and can only admire the depth of your insight. And I must read Cloud Atlas – I do own a copy somewhere.

    Gentle Reader – I identify with all the reasons you read; that pretty much covers it for me, too. And there are times when I’m eager to be challenged and others when I just want to crawl into something comfortable. That’s fine, and I do authors a disservice if I try and read against the grain of my emotions, I think. I do spend a lot of time thinking about my own resistances and wearing them down!🙂

    Dorothy – what an extremely interesting comparison between reading and listening. I do know what you mean. I like to listen to books that won’t contain any violence or truly unpleasant scenes because I can’t distance them from myself the way I can the written page. It’s true that training makes a surprising amount of difference!

    Miriam – and that is something that it is always worth saying! Thank you!

    Emily – ‘overkill’ is exactly the right word. I don’t/can’t read misery memoirs, and the rough stuff usually comes as part of my job, and therefore a sort of occupational hazard that elicits many a reading strategy. I agree with David, too – the familiar is more dangerous than the truly strange. As a ghost story writer, I am sure you are very much in touch with the uncanny!🙂

    Christine – you are very welcome! Thank you for the lovely comment, and yes, I do think I have the best commenters in the blogworld (not that I’m biased at all ;)). Thank you also for the vote for Cloud Atlas. I need a little push towards that book.

    Openpalm – I quite understand why you would take the approach to reading through your own writing and you speak so lucidly and insightfully about the need to express and communicate suffering, which must surely be one of the fundamental motivations of creativity (to say it, and also to make something out of it, to make it worthwhile). The more I teach, the more fascinated I become by what we can and cannot hear, not to mention the frames we put around what people say that can mold and distort our listening. But I do have faith that there are sentences out there, so clear and so true that we can all hear them and sigh with the relief of community, shared feeling, solidarity. I hope I read and write for that above all else. Thank you for your heartfelt contribution.

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