A good book chills the bone and warms the heart, grabs by the throat, excites the mind and inflames the spirit. Words well-written are a gift, a thing of incandescent beauty, a joy and a sustenance forever (with warm gratitude to Keats who first, and inimitably, sang beauty’s praises).
All books are wonderful in their own right, simply because the author poured him/herself out into them, because we are being given a glimpse of someone’s inner workings and their unique perspective is being shared with us. Yet there are some books that are so vibrant, so poignant, so tender, that, had they been human, I would have desperately wanted to move in with them, string them down, bind them to me (thank God they aren’t); had they been houses I would have lived in them.
Marilyn French perfectly describes the dissociation we often experience between a significant event and our emotions at this event, which are seldom on par with their cause:
…in life one almost never has an emotion appropriate to an event. Either you don’t know the event is occurring, or you don’t know its significance. We celebrate births and weddings; we mourn deaths and divorces; yet what are we celebrating, what mourning? Rituals mark feelings, but feelings and events do not coincide. Feelings are large and spread over a lifetime. I will dance the polka with you and stamp my feet with vigor, celebrating every energy I have ever felt. But those energies were moments, not codifiable, not certifiable, not able to be fixed: you may be seduced into thinking my celebration is for you. Anyway, that is a thing art does for us: it allows us to fix our emotions on events at the moment they occur, it permits a union of heart and mind and tongue and tear. Whereas in life, from moment to moment, one can’t tell an onion from a piece of dry toast. *
Christmas and New Year are such rituals, moments we have created within which we allow ourselves, even expect from ourselves, to feel the emotions of the entire year. Gratitude, love, awe – the whole range of warm fuzzies (and often some gremlins too). We need rituals to be able to label our experiences, to formally acknowledge them, to acknowledge ourselves and our lives. To take stock. And so, too, do we need art, because good art expresses us to ourselves, it gifts us with our own emotions, it both universalises and personifies the entire vast experience of living. And so, on this day of gratefulness I felt the urge to share the books, the art in them, that have lit my way and kindled my mind this year. The gifts that have kept on giving, oftentimes long past the final breath of their authors.
1. The women’s room, by Marilyn French
The quintessential feminist novel from the 1970’s, ‘The women’s room’ surprised me because of how relevant it still felt (perhaps not a good thing), how timely to both my own life and to those of many of the women and men I know. Covering the life of one woman over a few decades, it is written with irony and anger and great tenderness. I underlined. I folded corners so as to re-read. I quoted on Facebook. Some parts I read aloud because they needed to be heard: a pages-long tirade on romantic love done so frighteningly well that I wondered whether to laugh or be terrified; a wistful description of a utopian world in which all humans would love each other. The entire book is immensely quotable, so much so that I am at a loss about what to leave out. A few choice bits:
Other girls went to bars, other girls danced. The difference was that she had appeared to be alone. That a woman was not marked as the property of some male made her a bitch in heat to be attacked by any male, or even by all of them at once. That a woman could not go out in public and enjoy herself dancing without worrying what every male in the place was thinking or even worse, what they might do, seemed to her an injustice so extreme that she could not swallow it. She was a woman and that alone was enough to deprive her of freedom, no matter how much the history books pretended that women’s suffrage had ended in equality, or that women’s feet had been bound only in an ancient and outmoded and foreign place like China. She was constitutionally unfree. She could not go out alone at night. She could not in a moment of loneliness go out to a local tavern to have a drink in company.
This especially struck me as heart-breaking because I know this still to be true today. Women might, in name, enjoy the same rights as men in the workplace and at home, but with something as simple as going to a bar, old, limiting ideas still determine our actions and impressions.
On a less angry note, here’s another (lovely) bit:
‘Taking care of Chris, problem that it was, somehow kept me human. And if we all did that, all took care of each other, if that became, oh, not just a requirement but a custom, something people just did unless they really didn’t want to…I have this scene in my head. I see a rose garden tended by an elderly man who tends to be grouchy. And some children coming to see him, visiting him once in a while, as he tends the roses. And he always shoos them at first, growls at them, but he’s been there so long they’re not afraid of him, they stand around and talk to him and one day, one spring day after a couple of years, he starts to teach them how to tend roses and even puts the clipper in one child’s hands and helps them to clip off the dead or dying sprouts. Well.’ She spread her hands out, and laughed a little. ‘You have to let me be a fool. Somebody has to do the dreaming.’
2. Night train to Lisbon, by Pascal Mercier
Relentlessly self-questioning, both poignant and deeply philosophical – I initially struggled with this novel. And then I fell in love with its words, with the way their rhythm and melancholy bind the whole text together. Very little happens in the story beyond the account of one man’s journey, both inwards and outwards. Yet that journey is worth a read, and a re-read. This is the kind of book that wants savouring, slow savouring, for its words to permeate, to start inhabiting the mind fully. I will let the quotes speak for themselves.
It is a mistake to believe the decisive moments of a life when its direction changes for ever must be marked by sentimental loud and shrill dramatics, manifested by violent inner urges. This is a sentimental fairy tale invented by drunken journalists, flashbulb happy film-makers and readers of the tabloids. In truth, the dramatic moments of a life-determining experience are often unbelievably low-key. It has so little in common with the bang, the flash, or the volcanic eruption that, at the moment it happens, the experience is often not even noticed. When it unfolds its revolutionary effect, and ensures that a life is revealed in a brand-new light, with a brand-new melody, it does that silently and in this wonderful silences resides its special nobility.
When we talk about ourselves, about others, or simply about things, we want – it could be said – to reveal ourselves through our words: we want to show what we think and feel. We let others have a glimpse into our soul (We give them a piece of our mind, as they say in English)(…)In this understanding of the case, we’re the sovereign directors, the self-appointed dramaturge as far as exposing our self is concerned. But maybe this is utterly false? A self-deception? For not only do we reveal ourselves with our words, we also betray ourselves. We give away a lot more than we had intended to reveal and sometimes it’s the exact opposite. And others can interpret our words as symptoms of something we ourselves may not even be aware of.
3. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This novel, which I read after watching Adichie’s TED-talk (well worth a watch) cast a piercing light on race, language, identity – and it does so with such gentle irony that it is all the more powerful for it. I have read very little African literature before and I felt rather humbled by my lack of knowledge, yet the novel never intimidated – I was enthralled, I was blown away, I was pierced to the core. In the following quote, the novel’s main character (a Nigerian woman living in the USA) tells her experience of Obama’s election as president – somehow I found this deeply moving and very representative of the rest of the novel, though I expect it will lose some of its power by being removed from context (I apologise for the length but I find it hard to leave any bit out).
On the eve of Election Day, Ifemelu lay sleepless in bed.
“You awake?” Blaine asked her.
They held each other in the dark, saying nothing, their breathing regular until finally they drifted into a state of half sleep and half wakefulness. In the morning, they went to the high school, Blaine wanted to be one of the first to vote. Ifemelu watched the people already there, in line, waiting for the door to open, and she willed them all to vote for Obama. It felt to her like a bereavement, that she could not vote. Her application for citizenship had been approved but the oath-taking was still weeks away. She spent a restless morning, checking all the news sites, and when Blaine came back from class he asked her to take a break, breathe deeply, eat the risotto he had made(…)Michael came with a bottle of presecco. “I wish my mama was alive to see this day no matter what happens,” he said. Paula and Pee and Nathan arrived together, and soon they were all seated, on the couch and the dining chairs, eyes on the television, sipping tea and Blaine’s virgin cocktails and repeating the same things they had said before. ‘If he wins Indiana and Pennsylvania, then that’s it. It’s looking good in Florida. The news from Iowa is conflicting.’(…)
Blaine was sitting straight and still, staring at the television, and then came the deep voice of Keith Olbermann, whom Ifemelu had watched so obsessively on MSNBC in the past months, the voice of a searing, sparkling liberal rage; now that voice was saying “Barack Obama is projected to be the next president of the United States of America.”
Blaine was crying, holding Araminta, who was crying, and then holding Ifemelu, squeezing her too tight, and Pee was hugging Michael(…)and the living room became an altar of disbelieving joy.
Her phone beeped with a text from Dike.
‘I can’t believe it. My president is black like me.’ She read the text a few times, her eyes filling with tears.
On television, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and their two young daughters were walking onto a stage(…) Barack Obama’s voice rose and fell, his face solemn, and around him the large and resplendent crowd of the hopeful. Ifemelu watched, mesmerised. And there was, at that moment, nothing that was more beautiful to her than America.
4. The Choice of Hercules, by A.C.Grayling
A thoughtful look at two seemingly opposing ideals: living the Good Life, and living a good (i.e. virtuous) life. Grayling brings these two together in concise yet thorough manner, with chapters discussing aspects such as ethics, drugs, sexuality, human rights, and wars. Eventually he concludes, and one cannot help but conclude along with him, that the two above ideals are in reality inseparable. It is not possible to live a pleasurable, happy life in which one’s fellow man is being trodden down. And living a good life – one of striving towards the common good – is the only way to ensure future pleasure, the only way to legitimise and ensure one’s own happiness.
It is hard (not impossible, but hard) for there to be good individual lives in social arrangements that are bad, where people are oppressed, denied, deprived, limited, frustrated, coerced, and stunted. The worse the degree of these things, the harder it is for individuals to forge good lives. The real point of politics is to build circumstances in which good individual lives can flourish (…)
But the focus remains with real people, individuals in relationships with each other, all seeking and meriting a chance to realise the good. Under other names or none, consciously or not, that is what all of us do. And since that is so, it is worth repeating – again and again – the point that the life best worth living is the informed life, the considered life, the responsible life, the chosen life, in which sound the notes that together, in harmony, make for fulfilment in the active sense of well-being and well-doing that Aristotle nominated as the mark of moral success. It might be a Herculean labour at times to achieve this success; but the choice any would-be Hercules of the good life should make, is at least to try: for it is the endeavour itself which is the greatest part of the good.
For the next three books, see my next post – I was a bit scared of overloading my poor cell-phone uploader with a ten-pages long thing. Also, I am terrified of being the worst kind of evangelist: a boring one. Whatever the case may be, evangelise I shall.
* I’m not adding page numbers or any further information such as publishers, as this will simply be too time-consuming and start resembling an academic paper.