“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” ~F. Scott Fitzgerald
As I continue to write this blog I have come to discover so many like-minded people out there who are doing the same. As my followers grow, I look to their writing to see what might have resonated for them. Some are a mystery, in others I find kindred spirits. The longing for connection is universal; the ability to connect with such a diverse and far-flung audience is one of the great gifts of technology against which I sometimes rail.
Literature takes the connection into the realm of flight. Words knitted together with golden needles; emotions laid bare, stripped naked; portraits of places visited only in dreams; all found lashed together, placed in a pocket or bag and carried about for quiet moments of reflection and joy. Peopled with characters familiar as a friend; struggling, celebrating, tackling the fearsome and mundane with grace or collapse; relatable all. Literature, the craft, the inspiration and the gift do not come to most who write. It is rarified air those few breathe, as they take what is known and recognizable and build around it a stone castle of enchantment and wonder, a cave of terror and pain, turning the people and problems on end to tell the tale.
In the end though, the thing that captures us is the ah-ha moment when we see ourselves and know that we are not in this alone. That another must have felt the same sorrow or despair to be able to so clearly describe it, to feel as though they were peering into one’s mind at the very moment of grief, gives us a small dose of hope in the darkness. Be transported, uplifted, informed, inspired; great authors connect your world with theirs.
Picking up a book by an unfamiliar author written about a topic we had given little thought introduces us to another way of seeing, a different world view. Taking the plunge to read a viewpoint opposed to our own and written with at least as much passion as we hold on the subject is an act of derring-do.
The communal animals that we are, we seek out those who support our way of thinking, our values, our lifestyles. We want understanding, so what simpler than choosing to surround ourselves with that which we already believe? Assuredness builds as we read article after book after blog, all saying the same things that reinforce a belief. Confident in our rightness, with so much support behind us, we do not feel the need, the obligation really, to challenge those ideals.
Politics and religion are heavily populated shelves in any non-fiction section, yet it is rare to find the reader who selects from opposing perspectives to gain ones own. The art of self-definition lies not in strengthening what we hold dear without consideration, but to strive, seek and explore to gain deeper knowledge and perspective. Reading the thoughts and arguments laid out to dispute all that is held dear is frightening, like walking into a cave without a headlamp. Fumbling about in the darkness of a concept so foreign and threatening, it is near impossible to read openly. The effort is a worthy one. After reading with an open heart and mind it may serve to crystallize one’s thinking, or it may open a crack in the most entrenched belief to encourage further thought and exploration.
Apply this not only to the non-fiction shelves but to the genres of the fiction section as well. Stepping out of the norm to read high quality literature of a genre that is unfamiliar can challenge beliefs as well. Reading science fiction or fantasy, written in a strong literary style ala Orson Scott Card or Mary Doria Russell can carry the mainstream fiction reader into worlds and ideas unknown.
Stepping out of the comfort of unoriginal thought requires fearlessness and trust that one’s ability to analyze, reason and decide are strong enough to be challenged and open enough to a unique view.
“And that’s why books are never going to die. It’s impossible. It’s the only time we really go into the mind of a stranger, and we find our common humanity doing this. So the book doesn’t only belong to the writer, it belongs to the reader as well, and then together you make it what it is.” ― Paul Auster
A good book has the seemingly magical ability to continue to be read long after it is put down, the concepts if not the exact words can stay with the reader and continue the process of understanding or sharply disagreeing with the author. In any discussion or commentary of a book the endless variety of takes on the same printed words leaves no doubt that the relationship the reader develops with the book and in the case of fiction, its characters, colors the perception with a different hue for each one.
A writer uses fiction to take a notion, examine it, turn it inside out, develop it into something else altogether; then puts it out there with the faith that it will resonate and connect them to others. The reader then discovers, “ah there is someone else who has had that same thought” or “I never really considered that before”. A good writer knows how to draw out the reader’s thoughts in the same way they draw out their own. The best books cause one to stop in the middle of their day and ponder some morsel that has stayed with them; re-tasting the sweetness or bitterness of the bit that has lingered. Other times the characters of the book are so thoroughly drawn that one feels as though they have lost a dear friend when the book is done. And to reread it immediately gives no satisfaction, when what we want to know is what happens next to this new dear friend of ours.
Non-fiction educates, and carefully read, may also contribute to the introspection that leads to better understanding of oneself and the greater world. The best non-fiction has an “ah-ha” moment, whether it is the kernel of truth in a business instructional, or the instant recognition in a self-help manual. And that moment of recognition or inspiration can set the wheels turning in an endless progression of related thoughts and actions. Often when one picks up a non-fiction book it is with the expectation that there will be the answer to some specific question, some detailed diagram or recipe to solve the problem at hand. But it is often the aside, the personal example, the slight digression that captures the imagination and begins the process of taking the information and making it ones own.
As a reader our only obligation is to ourselves and our inner world. We can choose stories that capture our imagination, tales that take us to destinations and cultures we may never otherwise know. Book in hand we become an explorer and our experiences as rich and varied as our numbers.