It’s often said that, through books, you can travel the world and never leave your living room. You can learn about people and places you’ll likely never see. Your mind can travel vicariously–to faraway places. Of course, it can also learn new things–from a foreign language to botany.
But reading is more than learning or even vicarious experience.
One of the pleasures of reading is that things that typically would go unnoticed are brought to the page and made visible. The world becomes, not more than it is, but more than we pay attention to as we go through our lives. What is routinely and ubiquitously overlooked can be served up in a new way and made, not just palatable, but delicious. The affairs of our daily lives becomes more real.
As our thoughts become more complex, the texture of our daily lives become more complex–more subtle and more inclusive at the same time. Meaning becomes more meaningful simply because of words on a page in a book. Good literature does that.
The art of a good book is to juxtaposition occurrences, experiences, objects, people–the universe of human existence–so as to take the reader to a place of the writer’s intention. Much of our real lives is lived without intention. Even the most disciplined among us, those with the most conscious goals, still go on our way without paying attention to the world. Only the bluest sky will be noticed. The odd. The exceptional. The unusually lovely or unlovely. The most loved or unloved. All other people, things, and even thoughts pass through our lives and if they play a part it’s not a part we remember.
We go through our lives like sleepwalkers. We see no trees, no skies, no birds, no people in the crosswalks, no houses on the sides of the streets. Our lives are a series of places we need to be going, chores we need to be doing. The people in our lives tend to be the same people; those are the people we recognize–not the man in the check-out line, the girl on her skateboard, or the woman in the laundromat. The truth is that if I don’t know you, I don’t see you unless you do something or look in someway different from what I expect you to do or look.
Once in awhile, two or several things–objects, people, events–are juxtapositioned in a way, at a time or place, that they become visible and remembered when otherwise they would have gone unnoticed. Singly, the parts have no special meaning; nothing about them by themselves would have risen to the level of conscious thought. The things we remember tend to be the times in our lives when meaningful juxtapositions have occurred.
The first example that comes to my mind is an Easter morning at the St. Helena cathedral where the smell of lilies and incense was pervasive and the woman in the pew in front of me wore a red felt hat; the woman sitting next to me had a child, about five-years old, who couldn’t sit still and she gave him a hard candy; the red in a stained-glass window was particularly bright–in fact, the color red seems to be an important part of this memory. Glorious pipe organ music is mixed up with the shuffling of feet and the fidgetting of the boy. And a bird was flying high up among the arches and pillars near the ceiling, a fanciful and unlikely detail. Why do I remember this Easter in so many particulars? Maybe it really was unusual. But probably it is because it was the Easter, April 2nd–early for Easter–when I was baptized, as an adult. Many things came together and I remember many aspects of the occasion; sounds, smells, actions, thoughts . . . it is a complex juxtaposition of sensory, emotional, and intellectual phenomenon that come together as a memory.
Most of our days are lived below conscious memory. We are surrounded with rich experience at every moment, but it goes unnoticed. We simply aren’t paying attention.
Right now, for instance. I am in the downstairs bedroom, in bed writing this on my laptop. I’ve been awake since about 2 a.m. The furnace has been going non-stop; it’s a background noise that I haven’t heard until now, when I’m capturing the moment in order to write about it. I don’t hear it until I listen. The last time I looked at the thermostat it was minus 9 degrees–very cold for Weiser, Idaho. I’m up because I had a premonition that the electricity was going to go off; so far it hasn’t. I turned a couple of faucets on to drip. Then made coffee and put it in the thermos; it smells wonderful–Folger’s Black Satin brand. I looked out the back door to see if it was snowing, although I could hear the voice of my father saying, “it’s too cold to snow.” I worried about the hens out in their cold coop and told myself to put a heat lamp out there in the morning. A little late. The snow looks dirty in the glow of our yard light–six inches of it fell before the leaves were off the trees; a strange sight to see so many leaves on top of deep snow. It’s going to be a mess in the spring because the leaves weren’t raked this year. I put yellow towels at the bottom of the door when I closed it because I felt cold air. The cat wanted to be fed. I was making my way around the house wearing one of those small lights that fit on your head–so as not to wake my husband who hasn’t been sleeping well; but seems to be sleeping tonight. When I went back to bed, I was glad I’d put the flannel sheets on it. Will I remember this night in a year or two. Probably I will now that I’ve written about it. I’ve made it memorable. Otherwise, if I had remembered it at all, it would have been as that season that was exceptionally cold.
It’s interesting how life tends to juxtaposition occurrences, experiences, objects, people . . . how life continues in a stream on so many levels, but tends to be unrealized in it’s particulars until something rises to the level of significance. Which is my point here.
Literature brings life to the level of significance. Often it’s a story that makes literature memorable. A story line can be read through the trajectory of the plot; then the descriptions, the small details that make the story real, can be lost to memory just as they can, and are, in the real lives we live.
Except in short stories. Short stories seem to celebrate the details. The plot isn’t generally rich, though it may be strategically directed to make a point. The details, though, are important.
What brought me to write this tonight, however, was the sudden realization that I have read two books recently that are both written in a somewhat different manner from most. It’s the juxtaposition of reading a book, while the memory of the other is still strong, and realizing that they share this structure that has me thinking about how much of life goes unseen, unrecognized, and, in a sense, unlived.
The first book is the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. The second is the national bestseller, All That Is, by James Salter. These are both books, not compilations of short stories, but they both are structured in such a way that the reader comes to know the protagonist through a series of events over time, and not contiguous time. They are not vignettes. Sometimes the protagonist isn’t even the main character. Sometimes the reader comes to know the protagonist as seen through the eyes of someone else, where the protagonist may have only a walk-on part.
I enjoyed Olive Kitteridge most. I’m still reading All That Is. In fact, I’ve almost stopped reading it several times. (There is so much that I want to read, that I no longer continue to read a book that I’m not enjoying.) But I’m still reading. I’m not exactly sure why I prefer the one book to the other, but I imagine–now that I’ve put my finger on what the two of them share in terms of structure–that I’ll have something to say about it eventually.
It’s now 6:45 a.m. I’ve been up most of the night. The electricity hasn’t gone off–yet. I see no sign that the first light of dawn has reached this part of the world. But I’m going to have a cup of coffee. And go back to reading James Salter’s book.
Mona L S Baisch