“We read to know we’re not alone.”
That’s a line that the screenwriter gave C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands, and it has become, I think, one of those ‘truths’ that gets quoted around a fair bit. I’m not entirely sure that I believe that in it. Maybe it is the deep deep root of why we love stories, but it feels too simple.
It’s not just about knowing we’re not alone - it’s about learning that other people process (and struggle to process) things in the exact same way that we do, even if they’re doing it through different sets of values and experiences, or make different choices than we would.
David Foster Wallace, I think, gets about it a little bit in this clip, especially in the second part, about how reading lets you, like, pause time, while exploring a different world.
This week I (finally) read American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld, which was my book club Secret Santa gift. And I really really enjoyed it. I mean, I read a 600 page novel in a week - a busy week - so obviously. I fell into this other world, a world I couldn’t really have imagined enjoying spending time in beforehand. I’d forgotten until I was 50–60 pages in that I’d heard of the book before my friend @Blonde_M had told me about it - because it’s a book that’s based on the life of Laura Bush, and I remember when it was published hearing about it and thinking, ‘But why would you want to read a novel about Laura Bush?’ who seemed to me, at the time, one of the blandest human beings imaginable, standing quietly by one of the most apparently careless politicians of modern times. But what American Wife has given me, tucked away in deceptively simple, smooth prose that is as easy to read as breathing, is a better understanding of someone I thought of almost as an alien from the same species.
David Foster Wallace, in that interview, starts with the idea that books, “Comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Oftentimes I like comfortable reading - what we might call cultural candyfloss - although more often I go to TV and cinema for that kind of comfort-entertainment, but generally I like to be stretched in some way.
There are different kinds of stretching and ‘discomfort’ though - and different people respond differently to different things. And I’ve been thinking about this in reference to American Wife, because while I loved reading it, I think it’s great and am sure I’ll recommend it to people, it’s probably not going on my personal list of greatest hits. For me, really good, enjoyable-to-read books that increase my empathy are a pleasure, but they remain just that - really good, enjoyable to read books.In my head - and I want to be clear, this is only in my head, this isn’t some kind attempt to canonically define ‘A Great Book’ - a great book is one that pokes my brain to think new ideas and challenge the one I have about the way the world hangs together.
American Wife illuminates the world for me a bit better - but something like Gilead, the other book that’s fundamentally about people from the American heartlands of the mid-west that I’ve read this year, reveals something new about it for me, and that’s what I really, really love. Gilead gave me new ways of thinking about the world and of seeing it, through John Ames’ clarity in his faith and his reflection on it for his son. And so it has jumped onto my greatest hits list.
Perhaps my ‘comfort’ that needs disturbing and challenging lies in my ideas and my brain - or perhaps that’s a kind of discomfort that I’m comfortable with. I don’t know - maybe I should read more really good books about people like Laura Bush.