How many lives have you been allowed to live? One?
If so, too bad, so sad.
I have been allowed to live a thousand lives.
From third grade on my head has been buried in books. From then to the end of my undergraduate days those books have been for the most part fiction. My teachers warned me that I would get nowhere that way. Even my classmates thumped on me to get with the program and spend more time on Latin, or Greek, or German. It was only when I was on the brink of entering the serious world where my lack of knowledge might get me and those I served in serious trouble that I started reading with some passion books for my profession. But even then, a novel was close at hand to be read for relief.
Barack Obama, the philosopher President, once said that the reading of fiction created a compassionate person. The process of taking marks on paper, turning them into a voice in my head, seduces me into beginning to think I am the character on the page.
Tony Hillerman, the novelist of Navajo cops, introduces a psychopathic killer as a central character in one of his books. He tells the story of the killer as a child being left by his single mother with his aunt and she in turn dropping his six year old self at a home for children with the promise to return soon. Every night when he went to sleep in the dormitory, he left his cowboy hat on the end of the bed so that if his aunt came at night she would know which little boy was hers.
Every time I read this I feel in my sick stomach his waking disappointment.
I know that it is fiction, and Tony invented that child, but Tony was a great novelist. Great novelists do not create characters from whole cloth. I know well there are many little boys and girls throughout the world trying to make sense out of a disastrous situation, and not succeeding well at all. When I cry for Tony’s little boy, I cry for all lost little boys. I even remember the lost times of my own childhood and the hats I left on the ends of beds.
Then I remember the entire story, and I realize that I am weeping for a psychopathic killer. As I should. As I should. As I should.
My stimulus for writing this is Jane Austen. Dropping the type of book I usually review, I read two of her books for the first time. One, Pride and Prejudice, I have repeatedly viewed as a video. The other, Emma, was new to me. The central character in both is a young woman finding love accidentally with a man who in one case she despises and in the other thinks of as a big brother and actually is her very senior brother-in-law who is willing to casually tell her who she is as in: “Of course you are very selfish.” To which she is accepting as one is with a beloved big brother, even an in-law one, and besides, he is correct. Emma is selfish. She knows that. Does not bother her a lot.
Now what could an eighty-one year old man possibly gain from the exercise of reading these books? For one thing, a knowledge of how a couple of young women at the close of the eighteenth century feel about life. The constraints upon them. The extent of their hopes. The advantages that they had. The ways they felt and behaved that I wish I would. The character flaws they are struggling to overcome, as I struggle against my own. And that there have been and that there are entirely different worlds than the one I live in, different rules, different values, different definitions of success, all nearly incomprehensible to me. To be accepted as they stand!
I am allowed to live a completely different life for an hour or so every day in a manner that no other art form can induce. My brain is not rendered passive by a screen but forced to be active, deciphering the printed page, bringing to life what was recorded there inside me. Putting flesh on the bones in the text, smiles on faces, anger rising in the chest, the heart dissolving in defeat. Years of fiction reading leaves me with an awareness that the inner life so well described on this page lies hidden within everyone I meet, in some cases close to the surface, and in some craftily hidden from sight, sometimes by a mask representing the polar opposite of the hidden soul.
How good I am at compassion only God knows. When I was about twelve after the cleaning woman whom my mother would hire for the day and then outwork, had left, my mother found me sitting sadly in a corner. She asked, “Why?” and I told her how bad it made me feel to overhear all that woman’s troubles. Mom said, “You’re going to have to toughen up. That woman loves talking about her troubles. I should get paid for listening. You are feeling twice as bad as she is. Get over it!”
I thought that a very good idea, but I never quite made it.
Thank you Jane! Thank you Tony!