Our lunch conversation the other day revolved around the hardships of loaning books to other people (Yes, you get a bunch of English teachers together, and we talk about books). It truly is a painful experience. Anytime someone asks to borrow a book, I cringe. Of course, on the outside, I am nice and polite and offer them the book, but on the inside, I am cringing and hoping they forget. Nerdy as it sounds, I will sometimes glance through my bookshelf in our living room as memories of each of the books I read floods back to me; I start remembering the storyline and visualizing the characters as I did in the midst of reading. Therefore, giving away a book might mean that the physical memento of all that I devoted in the book could be gone and never returned, along with whatever thoughts and conversations I had during the reading period; it is like a piece of my existence is being stripped away from me.
Thanks to Disney, we often have these romantic notions that “all stories should have a happy ending”. When reading a book or watching a movie, we have this need to have a happy resolution; we expect our characters to find their true love, get hired at their dream job, and live happily ever after, with no problems or worries at all. If this doesn’t happen, we feel robbed, because if characters in stories can’t reach supreme jubilation, then how are we supposed to?
But, when you truly dissect the greatest American novels, there is not necessarily a happy ending. In fact, the greatest American novels portray characters that go through some of the most painful and troubling experiences—and these are some of the most beautiful stories. Amongst many other top-listers, my three favorite books include The Poisonwood Bible (a story about a missionary family who travels to the African Congo and experience tragedy, turbulent storms, and an unraveling of their fundamental beliefs), All the Pretty Horses (which follows the journey of John Grady, a pensive, independent, traveling rancher who encounters many obstacles, including falling in love, being sent to prison, and facing the wilderness), and Mrs. Dalloway (details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, as she prepares for a party and begins realizing she is in the midst of an identity crisis). These books expose the realities of life—that it is rough, a struggle, and oh so elegant all at the same time.
Much like being in a relationship, when you read a book, you invest something about yourself into the storyline. You go on a journey with your characters, experience their most intimate moments and thoughts, watch them go through pain and grow into hardened, more mature, and better versions of themselves. Yes, you are reading fictional stories about fictional characters. But, because we write from experience, there is always some truth to the events that transpire. Harper Lee created Atticus Finch after her own lawyer father, J.D. Salinger wrote Holden Caulfield to encompass real teenager problems, Barbara Kingsolver illustrates the climate of Arizona that is so familiar to her childhood background.
And, you learn something about yourself along the way. Through Atticus Finch, we can learn to be non-judgmental and accepting of other people’s lifestyles. Through Holden Caulfield, we can learn the importance of expressing our emotions and targeting traumatic situations, instead of sweeping them under the rug. Through Turtle and Taylor Greer, we can learn how the difficulties between staying true to our heritage and staying true to our families/society.
Books take us through a magical journey. I love reading books, because it adds to the study of the human condition. Through books, we study relationships, we learn lessons, and we see the world through another perspective. We study how characters interact with each other and what certain outcomes of situations could be. Ultimately, books allow us another avenue to answer the loaded question of what is the meaning of life.