One evening this week, I had a thirst to read something other than The Bible, so I went upstairs and grabbed my copy of Don Quixote. A chapter later, I wanted to stop reading. Don't get me wrong -- Don Quixote is witty and expertly constructed and delicious. But it can be an uncomfortable read for those of us that don't like to brush shoulders with tragic characters. And Don Quixote is tragic. What Cervantes wrote -- a 940-page unrelenting mockery (albeit brilliant) of a man who can't help being a fool -- upsets me. Don Quixote is daft, absurd, oblivious and totally beyond repair. And though he is hilarious, no one ever laughs with him. Just at him.
I don't like being reminded that we are all, in some way, like Don Quixote (some of us moreso than others), so I put the book down and settled for television, where characters are not often expertly written and rarely tragic in the way Don Quixote is tragic.
Later, as I thought about my response to Don Quixote, I realized that I reacted similarly to several other novels I attempted recently, and I have been subconsciously avoiding sad or tragic novels for months now.
In college, I read Woolf and Coetzee and Ellison and Remarque and other weighty books at a rate of two-a-week. I anticipated that my post-college self would maintain a reading list similar to my college syllabi.
Two months out of college, after powering through a few titles on my list, I finished Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking and was shocked by the way the book affected me. I found I consistently struggled to get out of bed in the morning (which had not been a problem before) and was overcome by sadness, to the point that I panicked I had lapsed into depression. It was as if a leak sprang in my mind that I couldn't stop up. Granted, Year of Magical Thinking is not sad in the way some books are sad, since Didion works through the loss of her husband from an intellectual distance so the reader's emotions are not charged the entire time. And, of course, I can't blame my sadness solely on the book. Novels are not read in a vacuum. Still, I think it was influential enough to take some credit for my mood.
The next book on the list was Eggers' What is the What. After reading a dozen pages, I returned it to the library a week before it was due (which is uncharacteristic for me) because I was afraid that what happened to me with Didion would happen again. And in retrospect, I see why: I felt emotionally unable to handle a novel about a civil war and a Sudanese refugee. It was easier to neglect the tragic novel than work through its problems and empathize with its protagonist. So I said, “Sorry" to What is the What and “Sorry” to Things Fall Apart. "Sorry” to House of Mirth, Old Man and the Sea, and any novel about war or oppression or suicide or mental illness. "I want to read you, but I can't bear your weight."
This begs the question, how was I able to "bear the weight of" and even thrive on tragic novels in college, but am unable to cope with them now? I think it comes down to this:
In an academic or scholarly setting, students have several "outlets." One is a community that provides a safe place to discuss and arrive at the author's meaning. Students develop trust in professors, classmates, and "the system." Another outlet is the pace with which students consume material (never long enough to dwell on the content). And of course, there is the elevation of mind over emotion. How can we apply this theory? often trumps How did it make you feel? (Although I think my professors did a fine job balancing and integrating the two.)
Without a classroom to diffuse the novel's content, wherein I could discuss theories and images and style, tragedy upset me. As if an academic mindset numbed me to or shielded me from adopting the character's pain as my own. So the type of writing I once found poignant and inspiring within the safety of academia suddenly became unbearable and suffocating and real.
It leaves me to wonder, is being upset by a novel's contents a natural way of processing the novel? And if so, to what extent?
I had been scared that I'd overreacted to Didion's memoir and was somehow crazy or hypersensitive or wrong for being unable to control the severity with which I responded. And maybe I did overreact. Maybe I am crazy or wrong. But I think my response came out of a sincere resonance with her writing. Fr. Greg Boyle, author of Tattoos on the Heart, says the truest measure of compassion “lies not in our service to [others], but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.” Didion’s despair became my own, which I think is the mark (and perhaps the danger) of a great book.
I want to be unashamed of being moved to despair or empathy or compassion. To feel and to empathize with narrative is to be intimately bound to others. And in this intimate meeting of author and reader, we find beauty and purpose.
For this reason, it is inconsistent with our nature (and maybe even selfish) to think, "There is enough pain in my life, and I can't handle exposure to another person's sorrow." Imagine that we lived our lives in that way, so tightly wrapped in our own circumstances that we are unwilling (or unable) to see beyond our own pain. I want to be unafraid of imagining lives that aren’t my own.
At the same time, I need to be wise about when and how I read. Taking a break from tragedy for a season can be healthy and is arguably necessary, but I don't want to make a habit of reading non-fiction because I can't handle a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, depressing as it might be. There is much to learn from the deep recess of despair, should we be willing to venture in.
And Jesus said to them, "Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his [accomplishments]." And he told them a parable, saying, "The [mind] of a rich [wo]man produced plentifully, and [s]he thought to [her]self, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my [thoughts]?' And [s]he said, 'I will do this: I will tear down my [blog] and build [a more accomplished one], and there I will store all my [thoughts] and my [writings]. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample [publications and a great reputation]; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to [her], 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God."