Why Are You Reading That?
The Pile of Books by My Bed (Not to Mention the Piles on the Floor)
“Why are you reading that?” my husband asked. And asked. It started as gentle teasing, his questioning of my penchant for dark, sad, memoirs of loss and grief. It became a family joke. “Oh, here’s a tragic book Mom will enjoy!” He regularly would recommend fiction. He reads more novels than I do, having more time to read, and his repertoire is impressive. He has a fairly good handle on my taste. Recently his questioning has gotten more probing. “Seriously honey, why do you read these books? Why don’t you try fiction or something lighter?” Puzzled by my fascination with sadness and anxious about my tendency to be anxious and sad, he regularly contemplates how to bring more humor, lightness, and play into my life. I married well.
I have just finished reading When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi’s memoir about dying. And living. It’s a beautiful book, with a stunningly honest and eloquent epilogue written by his wife, after his death. As I was reading, and reflecting on my husband’s questions, it came to me why.
Death is life. When we come to grips, really come to grips, with the fact that our time is finite, we choose differently. What is important? Who is important? If I were to die in the next year, how would I spend my time? Who would I spend my time with? There is nothing so clarifying than contemplating those questions. If my husband, my children, my father, my friends were to die in the next year, have I told them how much I love them? Have we spent our time together the way we want to? Have I asked all the questions? Have I answered all their questions?
As with all books, I connect with the character or the narrator or the author. These books about tragedy and loss, I imagine it happening to me and am of course overwhelmed with intense emotion. These books elicit profound feeling. Through loss and grief, one feels acutely the full range of emotions that makes us feel alive, including love and connection and joy.
It was different than when I was young, devouring first Nancy Drew and then Jane Austen, reading for hours on end, learning how to live and to be a woman. Then, reading was an escape from boredom, anxiety, depression, loneliness. It was an education, an outlet for my imagination. I wanted to be a plucky, adventurous outspoken girl, like my favorite heroines, instead of a quiet and reflective and cautious/sensitive soul. It was a way of understanding the world.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less interested in escaping and intensely interested in real life. I find it almost impossible to read fiction. A troublesome evolution that I blame on my anxiety and the distractions offered by social media. As an English Major, I place great value on literature. I seem to no longer have the patience or the ability to focus on long and complicated novels unless they feature modern-day contemporary women I can identify with or dark and terrifying-to-imagine futuristic scenarios about the apocalypse, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
The pile (PILE!) of books by my bed expands to include a myriad of genres including books about Yoga and spirituality, books about cooking and eating, inspiring memoirs, self-help, books my son is reading for school, and fascinating non-fiction. But it’s the books that remind me that life is precious, time is short, and people are what matter that take my breath away.
P.S. I took my husband’s advice and am now reading All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. It is absorbing and immersive, just the way I like my fiction. Maybe I haven’t lost my love of novels after all.
Funny thing, Sally, I used to read fiction and poetry almost exclusively. Now, scads of nonfiction–not necessarily dark, but something in my spirit doesn’t want to take in novels these days. I wonder why this has happen at roughly the same time in both of our lives. Oh, and my wife Kathy is reading the same Doerr novel as you are. She has read some to me. Stunning prose. Peace, John
Well, John, I do think it has something to do with midlife. I have a sense of urgency about being in the world here and now – and fiction feels indulgent. But I am enjoying this Doerr novel and the prose is wonderful. Peace right back at you, Sally
I commend you for getting to know death and all your feelings around it. In a culture that practically hides and relegates dying to others, you are an exceptional seeker. Buddhism says we have two choices: dying prepared or unprepared. Most people house “unprepared”. What a pity to live in fear of the unknown.
Continue to practice Savasana with complete awareness so you may live fully and deeply appreciate the gift of your life.
I find it very upsetting that we are so unprepared for death. I am grateful that I was with my mom when she passed and hope I will be prepared when my time comes. Namaste.
Hello Sally, I love this piece and all of your pieces. I just taught a Literary Nonfiction class and enjoyed the refreshing qualities of voice after spending years reading academic books, journalism, and textbooks. Thank you for sharing your voice(s) too. Jenny
Oh — and a few gruesome detective novels (Nesbo and Mina!) also became an escape for a while. I’m glad to have drifted more into thoughtful essays that help us address painful issues in warm, loving, productive ways. Ah, sounds like Nirvana, doesn’t it. haha.