The Risks of Reading
by Loretta Polish, Ph.D.
I started reading "The Known World" by Edward P. Jones three times. Finally, the third time I gave up skimming to find the plot, and surrendered to the words. I gave up wanting to know what would happen. If, I told myself, I read one sentence a day, at least I will have read that sentence. At least, I will have been open to the magic of the words, slowly overtaking me, seducing me into wonder at how one tiny allusion could echo the poignancy, the immediacy of love. An allusion like, "….the smallest ridge of dirt on one of his children's cheek…." The smallest ridge. A ridge, a curved infinitesimal spot of skin. I could see the cells. A ridge of dirt so common to a childhood then; a child playing in the mud, behind the slave shacks, maybe. That tiny image explodes in my mind juxtaposed with the epic of slavery. The pain, the humanity of it is too much to bear.
"The Shipping News" by Annie Proulx is an incandescent portrayal of aloneness, an ode to the absolute failure of the main character, Quoyle, as a human being. His pain is immortalized by the third page. "At the university he took courses he couldn't understand, humped back and forth without speaking to anybody, went home for weekends of excoriation." Though acclaimed by critics, "The Shipping News" was the most misplaced novel ever written. Readers left it on airplanes, beneath comforters, in car trunks, because we could see that, by page five, Proulx's relentless portrayal of aloneness would seep into our bones, penetrating our deepest fear, that alienation is contagious. But the die had been cast. We were compelled to begin again and yet again, while slowly, word by word we prepared to enter into the author's world, rather than forcing her words to shape to our world. We surrendered into the hands of the author, understanding that we were in good hands, slowly trusting that the author would show us how to travel the journey she had created for us. We bargained with the writer: if you will take care of me on the path into your world, I will accept that, once in, I will never be the same.
As we read, we became open to revelations as commonplace. For instance, the realization that a thought we've had, from time to time, flitting through our mind at odd moments, was a thought the author knew about, and if the author knew about it, we realized, others must have had the same thought. We recognized that if we were not alone, neither were we unique. And since comprehension of that recognition was instant and complete, like a door snapping shut behind us, we understand, yet again, the enormous power of the truth. We were reading along, our mind wandering, thinking of making a phone call or getting a snack, when a certain phrase or sentence grabbed us with the unmistakable ring of truth. A ring that, bypassing cerebral process, settled forever in our gut. And, as the story unfolded, as consequences flowed out of action and action flowed out of history, there was the reiteration that, as Faulkner said, "The past isn't over. It isn't really past."
At a certain point in a novel, once we have committed to it, once we enjoy the magnetizing power to these particular words, once we are fully immersed in this novel, we realize that it is going to end. Suddenly, we need to estimate the number of pages remaining, dismayed to find them diminishing, startled by impending loss. We bargain, clutching at means of control, thinking, for instance, that after finishing the book we'll begin again. Although we'll know the story, at least we can stay in the world which has become our second home. Still, we know that, just as we can't step into the same river twice, rereading a novel is entering a different world.
With all that process going on between reader and the novel, however, the pages of the novel are just pages. They stay put, one after another, safely bound between covers, unlike a relationship with a person in which anything can happen at any time. But, entering into a relationship with a person is something like entering into a relationship with a novel. As we get to know them, we attend to the kind of journey this is going to be, how much we trust this person to take us on this journey. And, like reading a novel, any relationship is optional. We don't have to pick it up again.
Even with a person we come to love, the relationship is conflictual along the way. Ambivalence, like the pull of tides, yearns forward, pulls away. Every second we are calculating the ratio of risk to gain. When a novel strikes us as uninteresting, or we find it momentarily too much for us, we can pick it up another time. Harder to close the book on a person to whom we are compelled to respond. It is also harder to close the book on a painful relationship which lingers, like smog, in the recesses of our mind.
As with a great novel, just as we realize the book will someday end, the moment we start to love someone is the same moment we realize we could lose that love. Many readers can love the same book. A love relationship with a human being is so much the more precious and singular, between this one person and that one person. Once we realize that we never felt truly understood before, we simultaneously begin to mourn the lack of it. We know with absolute certainty that people are not interchangeable, that gain and loss are two sides of the same coin.
Vulnerability is an achievement. It requires certain conditions just as a cell membrane becomes permeable during a particular chemical mix. When conditions are right and the yearning strong enough, we have the ability to suspend disbelief, to overcome ambivalence just enough to enter into the world of another.