There are times when I feel I’m not fit to claim the label “intellectual” because I honestly want every book I read to end happily. Books that end tragically, that make me cry, they are often strangely beautiful and stirring, but I don’t go in for “tear jerkers” as a rule. I live a very happy life and I am so thankful for this moment in which I can honestly say that. But I know that books or movies that open a window into someone else’s life and pain also open windows in my heart to simply feel, whether its through my own story or someone else’s. We all can attest to the fact that days pass by and string into apathy if we let them, if we don’t actively seek out the joy existing inside or the pain that needs healing in the people around us.
The truth is, I can easily become the person who will judge instead of try to understand. I first realized that about myself when I read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. It’s the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, whose mother is gone and who are raised by various family members in a rather haphazard fashion. They finally end up with their Aunt Sylvie, who has a history of transience. I had to look up “transience,” but I learned through the book it basically means that she often chose to be homeless. The book was a hard read for me, a woman who was raised in a cheery and loving home and who is very much a homebody. How much I learned, though! I saw into the struggle of “housekeeping” in a person’s mind who is unsettled about so many things. I learned that when I see a homeless person in my city, it’s not a given that they are suffering from addictions or poverty, but that they could be suffering something much harder to define. Kindness of heart and of actions should not be so hard to muster for people I don’t understand, yet it’s true that’s easier now I have some understanding of a mindset totally foreign to me. Someone once told my husband “There’s plenty of work to be had if you want it. No one has to be homeless if they don’t want to.” I had no idea how he could say that until I read Housekeeping. On top of the amount of insight I gained, the novel is a classic in its stark beauty and detail. It was bleak, it was at times depressing, but it is an important book to me.
I found the same insights in the more recent The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I wasn’t expecting to be so confronted with a person’s inner turmoil in a book about flowers. The book is centered on Victoria Jones, an orphan who has aged out of the foster care system and is thrust into the world utterly alone. Her past is all pain that she doesn’t want to confront, but the future demands it. The wording of each chapter and the acute descriptions of childhood pain and loss and the pangs that never seem to end afterwards completely engrossed me even when I wanted to stop reading. My heart was broken for children born to mothers with the capacity to love who haven’t the capacity to act on that love due to the wounds still unhealed on their hearts. I know I’m bordering on gushy metaphysical hodgepodge, but I’m not sure how to explain this book without telling too much. The Language of the Flowers is one of the many books and experiences that led me to reflect on the blessings I have and what I’m supposed to do with them. I can’t say I’ve gotten very far with that question, but it’s one that I’m still working on and that was brought to the forefront of my mind by this book.
And just today, I finished The Light Between Oceans. The premise of the book is that a couple, Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, who live on a lonely lighthouse island off the coast of Western Australia, are longing for the family they can’t seem to have when one day a baby blows up onto their shore. They keep her, and their decision that they think will bring healing only adds links in a long chain of devastation. That description sounds totally hopeless, but there is a hopeful tone in the book, just as you would expect in a story centered on a lighthouse. I was conflicted about who to relate to in this book the whole time I was reading it. Of course, I’d never sympathize with kidnappers. Never, ever. But can I try to understand a mind unhinged by pain? Well, I guess I can try. The hero of the book, Tom, certainly did. His ability to forgive is humbling. In the end, I can and can’t relate to everyone in this book. But I can say that the words of Plato (or Ian MacLaren? The jury is still out), “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle” came to mind many times as I read the book. I enjoyed this book more than the other two I’ve mentioned in this post. It was more adventurous and less focused on the psychology of the characters, though that did make up a good part of the book. Stedman’s characters go through hard times, and I found them to be often infuriating and always endearing. She created a world on Janus Rock, the lighthouse post, that will be alive in my mind for a long time yet. I want to visit there, if it actually does exist. =)
There are some books that aren’t entirely “fun” to read but that grip you with ideas and the people the book creates and make you cry or laugh or just sit and contemplate “What if? What if that were me?” I want everyone to be happy (hang being intellectual!) and I would choose all books to end at least mostly happy, but there are some books who mix the bitter and the sweet to show the reality of what life is for some people. I wish that I had the courage or even the awareness to look people in the face and try to understand what life is like for them more often. These books I’ve mentioned are a few of the books that, though fiction, have pushed me into attempting to put myself in the shoes of people who seem wholly different from me. I could think of more, but I’d love to hear which books have done the same for you.