Saturday, March 8, 2008

what books tell me about who I am

i have always loved to read. I don't remember a time when reading wasn't one of my favorite things to do. It is built into my routine: i read before going to sleep every night, i read during quiet lunches at home when I can enjoy 20 minutes of solitude, i read whenever traveling, and any time i have to wait in line or can justify the gratuitous action by the obligation to some other space occupying activity. it is my escape, my alone-time carved out of time occupied by other people and responsibilities.

usually i read a mixture of classics, with sci-fi and biographies (often of a historic nature). this year, of course, i have read many textbooks spanning world history from top to bottom. lately, however, i have noticed a trend of weariness in my reading. usually i love the artsy philosophical works of fiction that define certain era's of our existence. my three most recent are: The Fountainhead (which I just finished last night), Invitation to a Beheading (which I am still trying to finish) and To Kill a Mockingbird (which I am reading with my 8th grade class). I had never read The Fountainhead before, and find Rand's characters' long speeches to be tedious and overwritten. (I might just be feeling that way because the book was 687 pages of small type). The story itself was interesting, (though I still have a hard time stomaching the rape scene no matter how symbolic it was) but the message seemed philosophically shallow to me. This is perhaps where I am disappointed. Rand's work is supposed to be this great treatise on individualism and the rightness of the aspirations of man, and even a hand-up to capitalism, but the 100% humanistic basis to me made all of ther characters lack depth. I would be interested to discuss with my friend, Suzanna, what her thoughts on the book are, since she is an avowed communist. I just cannot buy for a moment that putting the integrity of one's own selfishness above vows and sacrifice is a philosophy to be embraced - though I did appreciate the willingness of Roark's character to invalidate other's selfish criticisms in favor of maintaining his integrity. I am conflicted over this book.

Nabokov's book caught my attention when it was mentioned in "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi. Nafisi quotes Nabokov in several places and piqued my interests through her explaination of oppression and human endeavors to quench the spirit. I generally enjoy Russian literature (such as I can get my hands on in English: Tolstoy, Chekov, and Dostoyevsky to a lesser extent) and I think under other circumstances I would enjoy this book also. The sticking point for me is the change in my physical location since I read "Reading Lolita in Tehran" - I was happily and expectantly enscounced in my life in Charlotte when I read Nafisi and all of her lofty and inspiring tales of freeing the human spirit through literature and art were very appealing. Here, in my developing country circumstances, I find my brain absorbed with understanding survival skills just to inhabit my day without feeling defeated. I have less sympathy for Cincinnatus C. and his self-imposed prison. I guess what I am trying to say is that whatever part of my brain that passionately loved the intangible realm of mental calesthenics finds itself worn out by the sheer effort of existing here.

Harper Lee's work has long been one of my top 5 favorite books. She writes about big ideas simply and with colorful and real language. I sympathize with the tomboy Scout on her journey toward maturity and understanding of the prejudiced and unfair world we live in. As a history teacher reading it with my 8th grade class, I appreciate that Lee has added texture, shape, depth, sensation to the things that I have been trying to explain to my students from rather dry and biased textbooks. But, I recognize that part of the appeal for me is the familiarity of Lee's writing. Not only have I read the book at least half a dozen times, but the story takes place in a setting I am familiar with and language I am comfortable with - namely that of the South. As I travel and consider differences between cultures (not only abroad, but inside the U.S. also) I find a growing fondness for the South and the traditions it holds. To read Lee's book, rought with the struggles of Depression Era Mississippi is still to be taken back to familiar territory, not to try to wade through a mythical land of imprisonment or the pre-WWII high 'intellectual' society of NYC. I think I crave the familiar.

And this all makes sense, I suppose. Far from home. Tired and sick I want to feel comforted. The excitement which normally drives me towards books outside of my experience is also causing me to criticize their characters and the obsessions they embody. As I consider my reaction to the things I read I think I get a clearer picture of my own experiences. I want to allow these insights to soften my edges and allow the affection for home and the familiar to feed my love for my peers, family and home. I strive for the unknown, and in doing so I am often critical of the familiar. I want to be understanding of the familiar and hesitantly expectant of the unknown.

All of this is just me vomitting onto my blog in an attempt to capture some piece of the internal experience here to ponder later when the novelty of being comfortable has worn off and the weariness of the mundane has set in again.

Have I mentioned I would really like to live in Australia or New Zealand for a year?


Lisa E said...

I can understand some of the nostalgic fondness for the South and its traditions when you're not there. It's part of the reason I enjoy reading the Oxford American magazine when I can find it. At the same time, living away from the South has also shown me some of the negatives about the South that I didn't notice while I was there. It could be, though, that I notice those more because I'm not pining to be back like you are.

Also, you should check out sometime. :)

Christine Luppino said...

I agree, "To Kill a Mockingbird" is definitely worth multiple reads--great writing, great story, amazing examples of grace to live out...I also became interested in Nabokov after "Reading Lolita In Tehran" but I'd advise against it. Talk about disturbing. Not Acapolypse Now disturbing, but right up there. And me, what am I fluff--to ease the transition to another country and new job--but it's hard not to enjoy a Stephanie Plum novel at any time--definitely a guilty pleasure :)