All my life, I’ve been good at protecting myself from books. I read them, yes, but I didn’t let them get close to me - not to my heart. Like everyone, I was born with the instinct to protect myself - fight or flight. I expertly applied that to my reading. Whenever I read that didn’t make me feel just perfect, I simply redirected those contraband feelings towards a convenient villain - one could do the same in life. Emotions hit me and bounced right off. At times it mirrored the way I lived my life. I assigned blame instead of thinking about who I was and deflected problems to avoid change.
I read Dostoevsky’s White Nights. I sat on my bed afterwards trying to digest what I had read. I felt it physically weigh me down. I didn’t want to get up or walk around. I looked for a Wodehouse novel to read. I could go into plot details - guy meets girl, girl knows other guy - but of course that wouldn’t do justice to what I read, what I felt. A few months before that, I had read something about the “Great Books.” Which ones they are, why you should read them, etc. I’m sure this wasn’t the author’s intention, but the meaning I got was that if you read books A, B, and C, you will suddenly become an erudite, “enlightened,” philosopher or something, and live an infinitely happier life.
That’s not how I felt at all. I felt like I had read something and it had hit me with a brick. Before I go on I should tell you - it doesn’t end well for the reader. At the end, both of the main characters claim to be happy, but not so for the one reading the book. There was no villain. I can’t say what any of the characters did wrong. What then would I do with those unwanted emotions? How would I avoid them? I didn’t. They went straight to my heart. They may have bent it a little.
I read this short story near the beginning of summer. It messed me up for most of the next month. I would be riding my bike back from the library and burst into tears for no reason. Thanks Great Books. This wasn’t what I had signed up for. I struggle to tell you what it was I felt, but what matters is that I did. I felt. Whenever I go for a long time without reading anything good - I want to say I feel an emptiness, but really I just don’t feel anything. Everyday life is just like that way too much I think. When I do homework all day and the next morning hear my friends talking about the new Star Wars trailer, it just doesn’t do it for me. I’d rather read something good. Too often I just don’t feel anything, and that’s what I think books are all about, making you think, making you feel! They may not make you happy, but sometimes they’re the only thing that they makes you there.
I had made myself vulnerable to books, and I had been changed. And I wanted more! I never wanted to feel aimless, purposeless, devoid of emotion again. But I did. Lately I’ve been struggling to find meaning in my everyday life. I’m religious, and I believe that life has a purpose, but often I don’t understand what my purpose is today, or this week. Unfulfilled, like I wasn’t on the path that takes me where I want to be. I thought I had found the answer though. I started reading a book—it was Tale of Two Cities.
I felt nothing.
I stayed the same.
I went to sleep.
Books are inconvenient. They cold-cocked me with feeling when I was doing just fine thanks, and then they wouldn’t touch me when I wanted them. Why?
I don’t have an answer. It seems the muses don’t sing on demand. How can something be good if it gives you not what you want and what you don’t want, as if on the whim of Janus? I still don’t have an answer. But I don’t think I would go back, if I could. Watch me scatter classical allusions. Watch me not know who I am. Watch me play with stream of consciousness.
I’m starting to read Pride and Prejudice for book clubs. I don’t expect it to “give” me anything, with one exception: itself and the words within it. It could. Maybe it will. I don’t know. I thought I did when I started White Nights. This must seem short and incomplete. It is. So am I. I’ll finish by quoting Bill Watterson: For no reason I can think of, I’ve wandered far astray. And that is how I got to where I find myself today.’