Feeling Too Human
I’ve recently finished reading Joan Didion’s heart-wrenching and staggeringly honest memoir The Year of Magical Thinking about the death of her husband, John Dunne, and the constant hospitalization of her daughter, Quintana Roo. The work is at once simple and impossible. The simplicity of it comes from Didion’s ability to make the writing very human. The impossibility of it is, in turn, the effect of its simplicity: sometimes it feels almost too human.
The Year of Magical Thinking, through its internal struggles, depicted at an emotionally break-neck speed, made me consider why people read. In so doing, I remembered Didion’s reaction toward the compartmentalization process of packing up a person’s belongings: deciding to give-away or keep or simply toss into the garbage those things that us, as mortals, believed to define the person in question. When going through the process of deciding what to keep and what to throw away, Didion explains that there were things she wanted to keep in case John came back from the dead. She, of course, knew that John would not be coming back, but she wanted to believe his reincarnation as a non-fictitious fact.
I say non-fictitious deliberately. When people read they have two options: fiction and non-fiction. This, of course, does include poetry since all parts of the written word can be judged as true or false. When I read The Year of Magical Thinking, I knew I was reading non-fiction. But soon enough I came to realize that Didion’s non-fiction documented a fictitious state of mind. Through some sorcery, like that which is granted by those books considered to be greats, I went through a moment of self-realization. When I read for pleasure, I mostly read fiction. In fact, I could probably count on my fingers and toes how many non-fiction books I have read for leisure. Through my self-realization I began to make connections between my life and Didion’s, between the book I was reading and the books I’ve been reading and about what it is that makes me pick up a book rather than choose the other activities that life’s open door hands to me. What I found was that Didion’s magical belief that her husband would return wasn’t unnatural at all (in fact she documents psychiatrists who support this idea). In fact, the act of thinking magically happens every day. When faced with a troubled world filled with a wide-ranging spectrum of problems, isn’t it necessary for everyone to think magically? Isn’t reading the ability to think magically?
There are so many times when I read thinking, “I really hope I get something out of this.” It doesn’t matter what it is, just as long as I get something. It could range from a new style that I’ll use more often when I write, to a new outlook on the world that I didn’t have before. But what I learned from The Year of Magical Thinking is that reading is, when all else fails, an escape from a former state of mind. If I’m feeling blue, I know that a book can pick me up, or if I’m feeling something I think nobody else has ever felt before, I find comfort in knowing that somewhere out there a person has not only felt that same way, but has written about it too. I think that if there is one important lesson I learned from The Year of Magical Thinking, it’s that we read to feel human again by thinking like we’re not.