Wow. I hadn’t been to a library to check out fiction in a long time. Too long, said my heart. And considering that I am in the midst of a doctoral project (about literature as a spiritual practice) in which my foundational idea is that humans need fiction – we crave it in our very essence – it seemed wrong not to be reading any new books at the same time. I have favorite books that I reread every so often and I treasure them. But sometimes I just want to read something that will surprise me, take me on a journey, introduce me to new characters, engage me with new suspense or intrigue. I do like a good surprise plot twist.
To the public library! I was browsing for over an hour. I checked out 11 fat books. Glee! Walking out of the library, I could feel the enormous smile on my face. “Happy as clam at high tide,” my grandpa used to say (and actually, this made sense to me because this grandpa did, in fact, have a boat and take us clamming every summer – so I got it). When I walked in the house, my daughter (ever the skeptic) took one look and said, “Mom? When are you going to have time to read all that?” I replied, “Have you just met me?” and snickered. So what if I’ve got over 100 pages of project paper to write up? That’s all nonfiction and research. This is different: fun and just for me. New and novel (no pun intended…well, maybe a little one).
This particular book (in the picture) was the first one I chose to read, thinking I would simply continue my evening habit of reading a few chapters before bed, but with an unfamiliar book. At 2am (still reading, eyes glazing over from not blinking), I was reminded of C S Lewis and the “curosity-lust” that grips me when I am reading an unfamiliar story that is engaging it.
Basic premise: You know that game you play where you name the five people (living or dead) you’d like most to have dinner with? What if one day that dinner actually happened? That’s this book. So half the chapters are real time at the dinner, and the other half are flashbacks of the past leading up to the time of this dinner. That structure/ method (alternating past and present in the chapters like a mystery novel) seems to be used a lot these days. So I’ve noticed.
By the time I got to the end of the book (which was happily on a weekend because I was exhausted, having stayed up so late to finish it…), my gut was wrenched. Before reading it, I had thought, “oh, what a whimsical little book. How fun!” Yeah, not this book. This book rips your heart out. And makes you cry. A lot. It has been a long time since I was rendered mute and useless for half a day due to the emotional trauma caused to me by a book. [Note: lest you think this happens with every book: it doesn’t. I’m through 5 of the books now and while 1 of the others was also very engaging and full of intrigue – it was the fun little romp I had been expecting – , it did not inspire the grief and trauma of that dinner one]
Grief and trauma very viscerally caused by a book? How can this be? Paul Ricoeur says it’s because the best books – the ones that are really true – require you to let go of your awareness of yourself and enter into them; this is how the book becomes real. It is, in fact, more real than your own existence. And it transforms you. The simple experience of having read that story has made me someone I was not the day before. I have added to the collection of memories and experiences that make up who I am. I cannot go back. I am transformed. I must be cautious and intentional about what I let get in there.