Since reading is not part of my job, nor am I currently in school, I don’t really have to read anything. But maybe because reading is and has always been a major avenue of self-development, we in the bookish community often carry a heavy sense of obligation. We feel as though there are books we ought to be reading, because they form the basis of a good education, or they delve into important topics, or they have been declared Great by Those in the Know.
But why is it that many of these books tend to be depressing? In general, it seems that gloom is considered more serious and worth spending your time on than joy. Self-improvement (in the conventional view) consists largely of facing hard facts and becoming habituated to disappointment. To do otherwise is to remain in a carefree, childish state, incapable of coping with real life.
There’s something in that. A reading diet of P.G. Wodehouse and Georgette Heyer, while delightful, would leave one ill-equipped to handle certain necessary realities. But can a book be serious and uplifting? Is there hope to be found in the dark?
Depression doesn’t have to do with facing the darkness. It means getting stuck in the darkness and seeing no way out. If one has even a little bit of leverage — a spark of humor, a glimpse of a better world, a flash of curiosity as to how we got into this mess and how we can emerge from it — then the quicksand hasn’t fully taken hold.
And so certain books that initially appeared daunting or grim to me have become some of my favorites, because they give the hope that grows from knowledge rather than blithe insensibility. They may make me feel angry, or sad, or appalled — but also energized by the challenge of grasping such difficult content. My view of the world has expanded, with shadows giving richness and nuance, and that’s a good thing.
However, sometimes I’m not in the mood, or I don’t have the strength to manage depressing topics and stories. I need restorative, up-building books at those times, and that’s all right. In time, when I’m feeling stronger, I can confront them again.
Meanwhile, books that wallow in pure nastiness, or seem determined to grind human endeavor to a fine gray powder, are always unappealing to me. And I’ve decided that I don’t have to read them, no matter how “great” they may be. I’ll spend my time in other ways.
Are there books you feel you ought to be reading, but don’t want to? How do you deal with that?
I didn’t do much reading in April, and no actual reviews … just too busy. Now I’m back from vacation, I’ve moved into temporary housing till we leave for Switzerland, and things are settling into a new pattern. I’m still busy with lots of packing and sorting, and saying farewell; my energy for thinking in a consequential manner, let alone blogging, is sorely limited.
So things may be a bit thin here for a while, but bear with me! As you can read in The Future of ECBR, I do plan to stick around and have some new and exciting ideas. And I’m always delighted to connect with you, through your comments or on your own blogs. Thanks for staying in touch.
Jo’s Boys by Louisa May Alcott – Reread
Marmee and Louisa by Eve La Plante
The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones – Reread
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
Other Features and Events
I started a buddy read of Don Quixotewith Emma of Words and Peace.
Girl Reading and a Vase of Flowers – Henri Lebasque, 1914
What does the future hold for this blog? Not long ago I made some noises about shutting it down and concentrating on my new blog, Entering the Enchanted Castle. However, I’ve decided not to do that for the present, so I’ll still be blogging in both places, probably at least till the end of 2019.
Coming up, I’m just going to take a short break because I’m very busy with moving and traveling. I hope to be back sometime in May, but we’ll see how it goes.
Then, looking ahead, I’m planning to host a Robertson Davies Reading Week here in August, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. You’ll find plenty of great summer reading in this marvelous Canadian author’s work, and I hope you’ll put him on your list.
I want to thank everyone for their encouragement and support! This blog has really been a joy for me, and I look forward to continued conversation with all of you. Have a wonderful spring!
This is the inaugural post of my buddy read of Part II of Don Quixote, which I’ve been meaning to finish for more than a year. I’m so glad Emma from Words and Peace agreed to read a chapter a day (more or less) along with me!
We’ll be taking turns to post about our progress every couple of weeks, so here are my impressions of the opening chapters. In Part II, Don Quixote insists on returning to a life of knight errantry, in spite of the efforts of his friends and neighbors to restore him to sanity, and his long-suffering squire Sancho goes along for the ride once more. It takes a while to get going, but once they do there’s an encounter with the Don’s beloved lady Dulcinea, who has inexplicably been turned by wicked magic into a hideous peasant girl. Following this they meet a troupe of traveling players who play havoc with Sancho’s donkey, and then another lovelorn knight who seems to have the same chivalric madness.
What is real? To what extent do we see only what we want to see? And how can we ever truly meet one another, when we manipulate our perceptions according to our desires? As in Part I, these questions come up over and over again, with both comic and tragic ramifications. Don Quixote’s longing for the ideal feminine is noble, but his refusal to accept what is in front of his face is absurd. His servant is more pragmatic but no less ridiculous, with his eternal hope of gaining an “insula” from this mad quest. Maybe he goes along just because the adventure is more entertaining than ordinary life at home, in spite of all the pratfalls he takes.
So far, I feel Cervantes is just getting warmed up, coming back into the mode of the novel he left off ten years earlier. Where will this journey lead? Will Don Quixote actually learn something this time? I’ll be looking forward to finding out.
This was my last month of trying only to read books I already have in the house, and I cheated a little bit. Kristen’s March Magics review made me curious to reread the one DWJ book I don’t own, so I got it from the library. And my son was pleading for more Freddy the Pig books so I went to the library again, and then read one myself, infected by his enthusiasm.
But otherwise I have done pretty well. The imminent prospect of moving will probably squash any desire to buy more books, though the library is another matter. I’ve been piling up my wish list there!
Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (1903)Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in 1888
Almost everyone must know who Helen Keller is: the girl who became blind and deaf due to illness before she was two years old, enduring several agonizing years of isolation before being reconnected to the light of thought. The play and film “The Miracle Worker” dramatizes this event, and it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by the moment when Helen connects the idea “water” with the word W-A-T-E-R. Every time we see this happen, it reminds us that the ability to communicate through language truly is an everyday miracle.
The Story of My Life is Helen’s account in her own words of the time before and after this momentous event, along with a selection of her letters, as well as a description from the point of view of the teacher who facilitated the miracle, Anne Sullivan. While the title suggests someone looking back from the perspective of many years, when it was written she was in fact only in her early twenties, a student at Radcliffe College. The focus is really more on education than on living, since Helen’s admission to Radcliffe was itself a landmark event, and there was great interest in how a “disabled” person had come so far in her studies. Native intelligence, tireless work, and the dedicated commitment of her teacher enabled her to undertake a course of study that would challenge anyone, however “abled.”
Helen took on the mission of showing that a blind and deaf person could accomplish much more than was previously thought possible: learning four languages, becoming a writer, passing college entrance exams in mathematics and geometry (always her least favorite subjects). Her greatest wish was to learn to speak, so that she could communicate with people who did not know the finger alphabet that had first given her the gift of language. She accomplished this too, although it was not always easy for listeners to understand her. Reading her words, it is fascinating to consider how language, thought, memory, speech and comprehension can develop without the two sensory faculties that are usually so central to our experience. Human relationships are revealed as paramount, and the teacher-student bond becomes as essential as light or air.
Since I knew little about Helen’s story beyond the early years, I was surprised by the weight given here to a plagiarism scandal that caused her great suffering as a child. While she was learning to read and write (“reading” being largely through the help of others who would spell books into her hand), she was delighted to be able to create a story of the Frost King that she thought was original. After it was published, its resemblance to another author’s work was discovered, and Helen was subjected to a grueling questioning process and lost one of her dearest friends. She must have “heard” the story somewhere, though it was not quite clear when or how, and it became part of her developing memory for language in an unconscious way. The insensitivity of some of the adults around her, the way they treated her like a criminal over this mistake without trying to understand her immense challenges, was disturbing. It must have made a deep mark on her, making it even more impressive that she continued her education and her life in the public view.
Also surprising for me was how often Helen used images related to sight and hearing, perhaps because of her wish to fit into the “normal” world. For me, it would have been more interesting to learn about her actual sense experiences, how she felt and smelled and tasted the world, but perhaps she felt a need to translate her sensations into more ordinary terms in order to connect with readers accustomed to such descriptions. She was a pioneer in a field that few had ever attempted before, and there was little awareness of human rights for people with disabilities at the time.
There’s an intriguing passage in one of the last letters quoted in the book, written to one of her professors to explain why she has stopped writing compositions for his class:
I have always accepted other people’s experiences and observations as a matter of course. It never occurred to me that it might be worth while to make my own observations and describe the experiences peculiarly my own. Henceforth I am resolved to be myself, to live my own life and write my own thoughts when I have any. When I have written something that seems to be fresh and spontaneous and worthy of your criticisms, I will bring it to you, if I may, and if you think it good, I shall be happy; but if your verdict is unfavorable, I shall try again and yet again until I have succeeded in pleasing you…
Helen had a lot more life to live, and she wrote many other books, but this is by far the most well-known, and probably one of the most famous autobiographies in history. I would like to read some of her later writings to find out if and how she came to “describe the experiences peculiarly [her] own.” In the meantime, I have been given some insight into the life of one of the most extraordinary figures of our time.
I’ve been meaning to read the second half of Don Quixote, having taken a break after Part One. When I found out Emma from Words and Peace was interested too — a chapter-a-day readalong she’d been following seemed to be defunct — I offered to read along with her.
We decided to do alternating posts every couple of weeks – I will start off on March 31, after I’ve read the first ten chapters or so. Next time it will be Emma’s turn, and so on. I hope we can keep it up through all seventy-plus chapters!
If you’d like to join us, please do — or just follow along as we embark on our reading adventure.
Terrence Real, I Don’t Want To Talk About It (1997) Terrence Real, How Can I Get Through to You? (2003) Terrence Real, The New Rules of Marriage (2007)
After going through a major relationship crisis last summer (now thankfully resolved), I was searching for solace in the used-book section of my favorite bookstore and came across the title I Don’t Want To Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. I devoured it in a matter of days, and quickly sought out psychotherapist Terrence Real’s other two books, amazed at the light they cast upon not only my immediate dilemma, but on larger familial, cultural, and indeed global issues. These are some of the most helpful “self-help” books I have ever read, and have been real game-changers for me at a difficult time.
Real’s argument is that boys are systematically discouraged from experiencing the nurture and connectedness that all humans need in order to become psychologically healthy and strong. Even without overt trauma in their lives — which is all too common — the cultural expectations for males in our society tend to leave them inwardly wounded and emotionally inept. The symbolic image for this is “separating from the mother,” which is forced upon most boys much too early. There is so much fear in our culture of being consumed and engulfed by the female realm that boys are subjected to shaming, criticism, and outright abuse for not being strong and independent at far too young an age.
In adult life, these men carry a burden of depression that is not recognized or treated — depression itself being considered a “female disease.” They carry on a cycle that was generally handed down from their fathers, and pass it down to their children, who often act out the dysfunctionality that they refuse to recognize and heal. And their marriages frequently fall apart, when their women have had enough.
Because men do not learn how to be intimate, connected, or emotionally aware while still remaining appropriately themselves, they can’t understand why their wives are unhappy with them. Trained to mask their underlying sense of inadequacy and shame with grandiosity and belligerence, they may frighten women and children into silence or flight, or trade a difficult spouse for a more admiring and compliant one. Or they may simply retreat into a confused state of baffled hurt. Through multiple case studies, Real describes how men and women in his therapeutic practice have been able to come through this impasse, when they bravely take up the work of facing covert depression and the underlying trauma that created it.
How Can I Get Through to You: Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women extends this view, focusing on methods of communication and interaction that build intimacy within male/female partnerships. Real reiterates the message that the bifurcation of human experience into two mutually incompatible categories serves no one. For true healing to take place, we need to recognize and honor needs that are universally human, even though they may present differently in male vs. female experience.
And we need to recognize the abusive legacy of “false empowerment,” through which men are encouraged to cover up a core of buried shame, fear and rage by keeping themselves in a position of dominance over others. This is not a man-only phenomenon, of course; women, too, are now able to empower themselves out of relationship and intimacy as well. The problem is not in either gender’s tendencies, but in the imbalanced relationship between them, the deeply ingrained contempt of one side for the other.
In fact, the traditional privileging of masculine over feminine qualities is one of the most destructive forces in our world. Feminism has made great strides in allowing women opportunities traditionally granted to men — which was necessary, but not enough. The opposite, equally necessary movement has not taken place, for obvious reasons. What man wants to give up his grandiosity and privilege to become “downwardly mobile,” to become humble, receptive, and vulnerable? What person in a “one-up” position wants to give up that power, in order to receive the greater gift of true intimacy and connectedness?
Only the truly courageous ones, many of whom are profiled in Real’s books. They want to reconnect, they don’t want to lose their wives and children, and they are willing to work hard to make this happen. They embark on a journey of facing their own early trauma, learning new skills and techniques for workable, respectful relationships, and recovering the heartfulness they lost in childhood.
It’s not only men who have to do the work, although women have a head start in recognizing and trying to do something about the problem. (Nearly all couples’ therapy is initiated by the woman.) There’s a therapist’s catchphrase: “Everyone is either blatant or latent.” If men in general tend to be the “blatant” ones, acting out with more overt behavior like addiction, battering, and infidelity, women tend to be the “latent” ones whose sharp perception of the faults of others often functions like a screen protecting them from their own unhealed wounds. Once a man has begun to change, they need to learn how to accept and adapt to that change, and not continue to punish him in lieu of others who have hurt them in the past.
When such unhealthy patterns can be transformed, an amazing kind of inner alchemy takes place. As Real puts it, “vicious cycles” are turned into “charmed circles,” with one partner’s positive steps reinforcing and encouraging the other’s. The New Rules of Marriage is a manual with systematic steps for creating such a relationship, through wise and loving practices that leave each partner feeling heard, respected, and empowered.
Even if you are not married and never plan to be, I think these books are worth reading. If nothing else, they shed light on the phenomenon of the wounded, falsely empowered child-men who are currently running our country and our planet — and on the premature, misguided separation from our great Mother (the Earth) which is driving us into the coming environmental catastrophe. We all need to learn that we can be intimate and strong, independent and connected. Each of us, whatever gender we identify with, needs access to the full range of human capacities, if we are to stop the cycle of destructive rage which results from the split into polar opposites. It may have played a role once, but that time is over.
Books like these give me hope that a better world is possible, that change is in the air and that we can move in a positive direction when we commit to living with honesty, integrity, and love. Marriage, with all its trials and challenges, is the goal of life — marriage to our true selves, to one another, to our world. I’m so glad to have encountered these helpful guides along that path.
Well, I’ve read all of Robertson Davies’s novels, and as much of his nonfiction as I could get my hands on, and even his published diaries and a biography … you could call me a fan. I agree with Nancy Pearl that he deserves more attention, and I’ve been surprised at the lack of coverage he gets within our usually literate book blogging community. I’ve been thinking for some time about doing a Robertson Davies Reading Week, to celebrate one of my favorite writers, and help introduce him to some new readers.
End of May or beginning of June is the time frame I’m thinking of. It will be a pretty free-form event, with posts focusing on various books and the chance to share thoughts about whatever you may have been reading yourself.
I have some bloggers in mind to ask for guest posts, but if you’d like to volunteer, please let me know. In the meantime, go to your local bookstore or library and get whatever RD material you can. You can read my post about Tempest Tostto learn more about why I think he’s so great.
Who would like to join me? Let’s give Nancy one less thing to be depressed about!