June 05, 2013

Reading Choices

Almost every time I visit a library, I emerge with an armful of books. Books I saw and felt I 'should' read, books that seduced me from an end cap stance, books by authors friends vowed I would love... I feel at home with books.

At the same time, I do not become friends with all books I encounter. In high school, I started reading Grisham's A Time to Kill. The opening scene revolted me enough that I put the book down and didn't pick it up again for 6 months. I had never done that before: chose to sever my relationship with a story and resume it (or not) when I chose.

My senior year in high school I decided so calmly, so naively, to work my way through a typed list of "Classics Every College-Bound Senior Should Read". Not even half-way through the list, I hit Voltaire's Candide. Mid-story, I thought to myself how stupid and irritating the main character was, then had a bedrock thought: Just because someone else considers a book a classic doesn't mean I have to read it. This thought was wonderfully freeing, and I have referenced it again and again.

When my husband came to bed shortly after we married and found me bawling over an inspirational fiction work, he asked me what was wrong. Between sobs, I explained the character's arc that caused my tears. I'll never forget his expression of incredulity as he asked, "All of that happened in one book?!" It pulled my emotions to a screeching halt, and I haven't been able to read that author since, because my mate was right. So much tragedy in such a short time is only credible if you're telling the story of Job.

The book I'm reading right now is another in my list of "I may not finish this" books. I liked the author's prior book (both are memoir-style), but this one is describing choices and character plunges that are hard to read. I don't feel pity or condescension for her, since some choices I've made are of similar shades. I think it's more that calmly reading such choices and continuing on makes me feel complicit or enabling of those choices. I haven't decided whether to finish the story, skim it to get just the gist without all the gritty mess (my psyche feels dragged through others' gutters when I read through too much; it's why I don't ever see myself reading Room, etc.), or return it to the library unread.

Here's something not many bibliophiles discuss: it's OK not to like books. I don't admire someone who loves every single book they encounter without discrimination, any more than I would admire someone who eats every bit of food they find and insists it all tastes good. Lack of discernment is never a positive thing. Despite rave reviews from many people I trust, I have never read any Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Cather, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Plato, Euripides, Salinger, or many other 'classic' authors. (Please note that my life has, amazingly, not ceased to exist on account of this.)

In Louisa May Alcott's book Rose in Bloom, Uncle Alex tells his teen-aged ward, Rose, "Finish [the book] if you choose--only remember, my girl, that one may read at forty what is unsafe at twenty, and that we never can be too careful what food we give that precious yet perilous thing called imagination." Though closer to forty now than twenty, I still try to weigh the food I give my mind. Not all of what's available is good for it. I still carry within me struggles that are legacies of unwise choices I made in reading decades ago. There are books I might like to read (like GRRM's massive Fire & Ice series) that I know are unsafe for me. There are some I can read that are perhaps unsafe for another person.

I hope you've been lucky enough to find a book (or books) that you love, that help you hear the siren song of who you are meant to be more clearly. If you do read, one way to know where your heart resides is to look at what you re-read. Most writers speak more about what they read (and re-read and re-read) than they do about what they write.

I've resisted setting aside my current book because it's teaching me something I don't already know (who doesn't want to learn the fine art of butchering?); my heart, though, is anxious about what relational messes it could be dragged through to gain that knowledge. Just writing this out, getting the words on the page, helps me see that for now, finishing the book isn't worth it.

Maybe I'll finish it when I'm sixty.

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