Elie Wiesel’s Night.
Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird.
André Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of the Just.
Dominique Lapierre’s City of Joy.
Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.
I’ve been posting about books that I love in spite of–or because of–their challenging material in terms of philosophical thinking or complex scientific explanations. It occurs to me there are other forms of “difficult,” and that topic is yet another challenge for the reader to encounter. These are books I found hard to read because of subject matter, events, descriptions of things I cannot imagine, or maybe can imagine, facing.
Sometimes a book seems difficult for me on these terms because of where I am in my life; it might not be difficult to read at another time. An example of this sort of book is Franzen’s The Corrections, which features among other characters a family patriarch in serious physical and mental decline. My family is experiencing something similar right now, and I cannot quite bring myself to open the book lying on the nightstand.
On the other hand, reading can help me get through tough situations. Maybe I’ll get to The Corrections soon after all if I recall how fiction and poetry–especially the latter–have often been tools for coping or “processing.” It was immensely difficult to read Marie Howe’s What the Living Do close on the deaths (by AIDS) of three friends, but I felt understood when I read her work; I can’t explain it any other way. This exchange is almost magical to me: I do not necessarily feel I understand the writer, but I feel the writer has understood me. Without knowing me. Without knowing a person like me would ever stumble upon and read the pages…yet the text makes me feel understood.
I love that feeling, even though the rational side of me cries “Magical thinking! Coincidence! Self-delusion!”
So that’s art.
Some tough books to read: Gray Jacobik’s Little Boy Blue, Chana Bloch’s Mrs. Dumpty, Donald Hall’s Without, Heidi Ann Smith’s The Carol Ann Burns Story, Selah Saterstrom’s The Meat & Spirit Plan, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Gregory Orr’s Gathering the Bones Together…and these books, mostly poetry, do not include the more traditional memoirs and non-fiction accounts of difficult events that are available to the reader. You could spend your entire life reading about the Holocaust, and some readers do just that.
Why would I willingly subject myself to disturbing reading? I kind of wonder about that myself; it’s not the same impulse that makes me want to read a thriller or mystery novel. In those cases, there is a promise of entertainment in a voyeuristic form and the outcome usually promises a kind of satisfaction that these other books do not always offer (read: hope, redemption, solutions…)
But I will hearken again to something I heard Marilynne Robinson talk about (see my previous post on AWP). She suggested that literature teaches us compassion. Good art of any kind opens up a new kind of perspective, one that thrusts us out of our own comfortable, individual points of view and therefore allows us–in the safety of our own homes, secure in the knowledge that this is only a book and is not happening to us–to engage with the “other.” When we feel empathy for a problematic character, when we feel we understand another person’s plight, even a fictional person, we move away from narcissistic isolation and into engagement with other beings. And that is compassion.
And that is also art.