When I was 15 years old, my family moved from Venezuela to the United States, where I was immediately thrown into the American school system. I started my sophomore year in high school with passable English, spent a few months as an ESOL student, and struggled through the Harry Potter series. In the middle of the 10th grade, my English teacher assigned the most important task of the course: an analytical paper on a classic novel of our choice. Not knowing what constituted a “classic,” I Googled it. The first result was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I had all my winter break to read it.
Armed with an English-to-Spanish dictionary, I started reading. The endeavour lasted two months, but I fell deeply, irrevocably in love with Jane. And while my rather limited command of the English language slowed my progress, and surely left much meaning in the novel uncovered, I could deeply relate to the novel’s namesake: her childhood, her love for Edward Rochester, and above all her struggle to develop both her moral and spiritual sensibilities. I found the inconsistency in Jane’s ideas and observations—her constant back and forth—strangely comforting. I was insecure, perennially unsure what to make of the world and my place within it. Suddenly, I was understood.
It was through this imposed reading of Jane Eyre that I began to see how literature can both live and give life. Books were not a form of escape, but rather a way through which I could plunge deeper into a human experience I was struggling to participate in and understand. I needed reading to do something of consequence to my soul.
Franz Kafka expressed a similar sentiment in a moving letter to a childhood friend:
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”
It’s in this way—books as axes that pick at our unconscious ways of being—that I think reading can be most powerful. Stepping into worlds of make-believe can awaken us from the deadening effects of habit. Reading can help us notice aspects of our internal and external experiences that the humdrum routine of life has silenced or numbed, like melancholy, frustration or disappointment in love. When we see these dimensions in somebody else, we awaken to them within ourselves.
Marcel Proust, known to have been a gluttonous reader, wrote:
“Reading is at the threshold of our inner life; it can lead us into that life but cannot constitute it. What is needed, therefore, is an intervention that occurs deep within ourselves while coming from someone else, the impulse of another mind that we receive in the bosom of solitude.”
My own hope is that through reading we can enkindle both curiosity and compassion for the inner workings of our being, as Proust suggests. As humans, we are wired to feel utterly alone in our experiences of inner turmoil. I suppose it is because of this loneliness that we often attempt to elude inner pain and discomfort. A book though, acting as a mirror to our inner workings, can foil our caper. I often find myself bewildered when another mind stirs me into awareness, sharpening into focus what I am thinking and feeling with such accuracy that it shrinks my common experience of loneliness and freakishness. Writers simultaneously connect us with our own uniqueness and help us feel like normal human beings trying, and often floundering, to capture meaning when it is most elusive.
A few years ago, I began to keep a “commonplace book,” a vault of the observations and ideas that you collect throughout your life of reading, thinking and listening. Michel de Montaigne, Marcus Aurelius, Lewis Carroll, HL Mencken and many others kept one. There are several versions of this practice today—mine is notecard based. Soon after I finish a book, I copy, on a notecard, whichever bits I want to revisit in the future. I then file the notecard thematically (love, loss, grief, friendship etc.) in a massive box.
The point of the exercise is to retrieve the notecards at appropriate times later in life, like when you lose someone you love, split up, lose your job or any of the other countless human travails we experience. It’s an emotional toolbox that serves as a lifeline for the times that test us, and as a never-ending, unbreakable connection to the wondrous and immortal life of books.
When I became a mother, I began to obsess about sudden personal catastrophe. The frighteningly labile, fragile nature of life. As soon as my son was born, I nursed the painful idea of losing him. And I felt the loss as if it was real: during my first few months as a mother, I was blown apart. This imagined loss arrived imbued with an unendurable story: that if anything was to ever happen to my child, it would be personal. That it would happen to him because he was mine. Because it was me. Somewhere along the way, I’d held onto the story that tragedy is individualised, not random, and that it is dictated by an intangible force over which I wielded no control. This story altered the nature of the imagined experience, transforming it from an uncomfortable ‘could be’ to an overpowering tale that left me frozen on my own planet of imagined grief while the universe continued in ceaseless motion.
I turned to my commonplace book. While leafing through the notecards, I found a phrase I had read, re-written and filed:
“No eye was on the sparrow. No eye was watching me.”
I came across this phrase within the pages of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s memoir recounting the year following the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. In the bit of the book where this quotation comes from, Didion rejects the famous hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” which extolls that a higher being is closely observing each and every living thing on the planet, even a bird as tiny as a sparrow.
Her form of belief is geological, not religious: human beings, she proposes, are as vulnerable to tragedy as the blue orb we live on. “I found earthquakes, even when I was in them, deeply satisfying,” she writes, “abruptly revealed evidence of the scheme in action.” Natural disasters attest to the randomness of tragedy. Misfortune is not about you, it is not preordained because you felt yourself not good enough. It is indiscriminate in the way a devastating earthquake is. The pain is therefore transformed, if not in degree then in kind: the terrifying possibility of losing your child would not be your fault. This story, I feel, is one I can better live with.
We can connect with books on a spiritual, scholarly, moral and emotional level. Some books never become irrelevant because they change as we change. They have this magical ability to metamorphose into what we need at just about every stage of our lives. In some way or another, they are always us and we are always them.
I originally wrote this piece for Dumbo Feather Magazine.