Literary Friend and Foe

I’m sure it was November, on the prairies, in my first year of University. It didn’t snow until Christmas that year, I’m sure, and if my memory serves, Bryan and I had broken up, and I don’t think we had gotten back together yet, and Mikhela, his daughter was living with me, off and on, but I remember it being more on, and often her infant sister was with her. And if it was November, I had almost certainly spectacularly failed the Calculus 115 midterm, with a 20%.

My mother was determined, in June of the spring before, and then, as she had been for my entire life, that no daughter of hers was going to a community college, to learn basket weaving. And so I found myself, from a graduating class of 5, in a lecture theater of 400. I had not learned the secrets of making a large place seem small. I didn’t know about making a friend in each class, starting small. I knew no one at university, save the man I was dating, and at 19 I still seemed to lack social skills and graces. I had turned down the orientation, assured by the boyfriend I would not be dating much longer, that he would show me around. I didn’t join a club, find a service group, I wasn’t the sorority type, and I think I found the Anglican Chaplain, but I seem to recall he quit shortly after I arrived, and I never did go back. I was ill prepared for the life I was leading, lost, broken and tired.

In HUB mall, there was, and probably still is, a discount seller of books. I went looking and amidst the odd sociology texts that may have been a text last year, over sized coffee table books of artists I had never heard of, there was a Patricia Cornwell book.

In the midst of drowning, being lost in that unhappy and lonely place, I took my Patrica Cornwell novel to the pedway between HUB and the Arts building, where it overlooked Rutherford house, and I sat and read. I hadn’t learned about the other, secret and quiet places at the University: the Periodical Reading Room in the Rutherford South, the Green house in the Ag and Forestry building, the museum in the faculty of Home Ec, the sunny spots in SUB, and the peaceful chapel at the Catholic residence.

I spent an afternoon devouring the book, a forensic pathologist, gruesome and sadistic murders, dysfunctional relationships, an adulterous affair. Utterly different than the life I was not leading well. Pure, escapist fantasy. I actually kept up with Patricia Cornwell through the years it took me to finally finish my degree (I started in 97, and my degree says 2005). From her I moved into Kathy Reichs, then on to JD Robb. I finally stopped reading Cornwell about 4 years ago, when things got utterly crazy, but I would stop people who were reading the new books, asking them what was happening to the story.

And all of this is a droll and somewhat literary way of getting to the point. I was reading one of Ian Rankin’s books last night. I’m new to him, he arrived in the house shortly after Gabe’s death, when someone brought books. And this particular book is about a serial killer. After the insanity and depravity that is Robb and Cornwell, quite tame.

And yet.

I cannot read it. I came home from the hospital after Gabe’s birth, and I picked up the JD Robb book I was reading, and I could not read it. The violence, the hatred, the pain, the atrocity of all of it was too raw. Salt in a wound.

And I found myself putting the book down last night. Not putting it on the shelf, but bundling it in the bag for the book sale, half read. And actually contemplating if I wanted to foist it off on someone at all. Wondering if I should throw it out completely.

(I assure you, Mr. Spit and I, of the 2000 book library, do not throw out books. In fact, we don’t seem to give them away much.)

It astonishes me. I cannot read these books. I put down Rankin, and picked up the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

And the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie society is a heartbreaking book. But it is real. Pain and tragedy is measured out by love and joy.

And if I had to guess why I can’t read the likes of JD Robb and Ian Rankin, it is this. I have known pain and sorrow and terror.

I chose joy.

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19 Responses to Literary Friend and Foe

  1. Sigrun says:

    What a powerful post! Amen,

  2. angie says:

    Amazing post.

    I have felt the same way since Lucy died–unable to tolerate violence on television, in movies, or, most close to my heart, in books. The victim is always someone's daughter or someone's son. My heart has been broken enough this year.

    With much love. XO

  3. areyoukiddingme says:

    I have found myself reading much lighter material in the last few years. That's the beauty of books – there's always a different genre to explore.

  4. Mirne says:

    Exactly! I have the same. Books that I used to read in a day … now I struggle to get beyond the first chapter and then I give up anyway. And the movies and the tv programs I watch — I don't want to watch violence or horrors or thrillers (not that I ever wanted that much). Now I just want fun and happy entertainment. I've had to much pain and sadness and fear in my life already.

  5. Jen says:

    I do the same thing. I avoid movies and books that are unhappy. I figure there is enough horrible stuff in the world, why should I seek it out?

  6. Ya Chun says:

    I too have a low tolerance for gruesomeness. Books should be an escape from this life.

  7. Bluebird says:

    It's amazing how much my reading list has changed since losing our twins. For me, it's not only the violence that I avoid, but sorrow too. Particularly anything involving heartbreak and a child. I could suffer through it, I suppose, but I no longer want to. For the first time in my life I have left books – several books – half-read.

    So yes, dear friend – choose joy. Throw the book away if you need to. (Just cover your eyes, because I know it will be hard!) If you're like me – give yourself permission to read some "fluffy" stuff 🙂 And keep choosing joy. You've had far too much of the other.

  8. Martha says:

    I have been a huge fan of procedural crime books forever. It does get to be too much sometimes and then I retreat to my dear Miss Austen or gardening books. When my brain is really toast, I just skim catalogs I get so downright illiterate.
    ((Hugs)) I choose Joy.

  9. Brown Owl says:

    So very true. I use to read romances. delightful light hearted done in a day. And then it was mysteries and who done its. But now, I find Braun and "the cat who" under the bedside table. That and a new cook book, or seed catalogue!
    loved your post…..

  10. ..... Carmen says:

    I'm just starting the Potato Peel Pie Society book for our book club read this month.

    I have found there are many books or movies that I used to watch that I'm no longer able to after a number of family tragedies.

    It's nice that there are other types we are able to turn to and enjoy.

  11. JamieD says:

    What a wonderful, insightful post.

    It is so true – after living through ~real~ sorrow, pain and terror reading about it is more than unpleasant.

    Reading should be an escape. Sure, crime thrillers are fun every now and again but I want to escape to a happier place where all the pieces fall together at the end. For me, it is like proof there can be happiness. Even if it is fictional proof.

  12. Donna says:

    I've felt a shift to lighter reading in the recent past too – but not so much to avoid certain topics… just mostly because I don't want to deal with weighty, heavy issues when I read anymore. Reading has become my distraction – my way of not thinking about things. So my book choices seem to have taken a similar turn. I just want to think about things that are not my life. I read a book recently that hit just a little to close to home. I tried to put it down but couldn't, but I certainly didn't enjoy it.

  13. Aunt Becky says:

    I always choose joy too.

  14. Debby says:

    I thought that I was the only one who felt like this.

  15. Kristin says:

    Its interesting because, despite the pain and sorrow of my journey, I still read those books. I can see how your journey would affect you like that but it is always so interesting how different people react to things.

  16. loribeth says:

    I understand. I've written, somewhere on my blog, about reading "A Dry Spell," a thriller by Susie Moloney, while waiting for my fateful ultrasound with Katie. It's not the type of book I usually read, but it was getting good press at the time (Tom Cruise had just bought the movie rights) & it was set in North Dakota, which is close to home for me. I was already feeling uneasy, and reading about malevolent spirits and posession did nothing to alleviate it. I never did finish the book, although I did take a peek at the final pages to find out how it ended.

    After Katie died, one of the first books I read was "Bridget Jones's Diary." It was the perfect tonic!

  17. Trish says:

    I am the same way now. I used to love horror and violence and crime solving..
    I tried very hard to read a Dean Koontz book a few months ago. I never did make it past page 7.

    Our children change us, for sure.

  18. WhiteStone says:

    Wow! Fascinating! This is my first visit to your blog (via Debby) and I am totally surprised that these responses are so akin to mine. My life's disaster happened 20 some years ago, yet I still intensely dislike violence on TV or movie. Reading? I tend to read non-fiction and peruse magazines for sensible how-to or other informative articles. Life itself is tough. No point reading violence or crudeness for 'entertainment'. I need refreshing reading.

  19. laurie says:

    I just discovered your blog via Blogger Bingo (Guernsey gives me my box for today)and you have made laugh and cry in the last few minutes. I love your writing and I thank you for sharing your story.

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