Over Coffee: The art of reading, writing and caring

As my need for escapism intensifies in an environment of smothering political chaos, stacks of books are piling up around me. To keep from obsessing over the madness emanating from Washington during this past year of demagoguery and discontent, I’m pondering the nature of literature as a deterrent to despondency.

Oooops. Wait. My phone is vibrating across my desk. A news alert. Forget it. Mueller can wait. It’s finally the weekend. Back to literature. Coffee close by.

The value of literary art is aptly rendered in an “Author’s Note” by Marilynne Robinson published Sept. 24 in The New York Times Book Review.  “In almost every major literature there are works that make you love being human, and make you love and revere the humanity of other people,” Robinson writes in the column adapted from an essay entitled “Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.”

Is there actually something that RIGHT NOW could make me love the humanity of you know who? Or, if not that, could I at least despise a few people a little less by, say, late next week?

Of course authors of the books I read deserve credit for their dedication to story and plot and character development, and for respecting and enlivening language while probing and expanding creative expression. But the deepest, most genuine nature of the literary arts requires involvement and even dedication on the other end; pushing a literary work to its highest possible level requires involvement from the reader as artist. This reader is one who knows to listen when there is something to hear, to contemplate when a deeper principle or insight can be unearthed, to imagine, extrapolate and allow the story being told to expand beyond the pages, outside the book’s covers.

Two books published this year – the novel “A House Among the Trees” by Julia Glass and the short story collection “Fresh Complaint” by Jeffrey Eugenides – left me writing down excerpts because I didn’t want to lose the feelings of recognition and resonance gained through the wisdom and insights of the authors. These works allow me, as the reader, to become a discoverer with something to claim as my own after being led through frontiers exposing much to treasure.

Perhaps certain excerpts inspire me because of what my subconscious is probing when I commit to considering deeper meanings underlying the author’s observations or descriptions. With all that’s been on my mind since, oh, I don’t know, about a day after the last U.S. presidential election, it’s apropos for the first excerpt included here to be a deft one from the Eugenides’ short story “Great Experiment,” written in 2008. “One’s country was like one’s self. The more you learned about it, the more there was to be ashamed of,” he writes.

One of the characters in the Glass novel pulls me in with this: “So much in her life is still so unfamiliar that sometimes she mistakes fear or uncertainty for regret. Not that she can pretend she has no regrets.” Another gem: “But that’s the netherland of night distorting what she knows by day, which is that she is back in the middle of life, the roiling, muddled middle, and it’s hers. …”

Yes, indeed. Nice stuff coming off these pages – like the essence of the “roiling, muddled middle” that feels like it’s all mine today.

In one passage, Glass describes a walk across New York’s Central Park: “Neither of them knew the paths, which seemed deliberately confusing, as if designed to foil your sense of direction, not deviously but mercifully, as if the park were urging you, Listen! Life is not a mission. Get lost a little, will you?

Yes, indeed. Get lost in a story, let it challenge you to think and experience, to question and contemplate, even to imagine, dread or desire.

In “Complainers,” the first story in Eugenides’ new collection, I found wisdom and reassurance: “Pay no attention to the terrors that visit you in the night. The psyche is at its lowest ebb then, unable to defend itself. The desolation that envelops you feels like truth, but isn’t. It’s just mental fatigue masquerading as insight.”

Ah yes – desolation born of tainted attempts to mask, manipulate and deny the truth. (Sound familiar?)

Eugenides is masterful in getting to the heart of easily misunderstood or overlooked characters, as he does in interpreting observations of an 88-year-old woman suffering from dementia. “Looking at the snow, blowing around beyond the window glass, Della has the feeling that she’s peering into her own brain. Her thoughts are like that now, constantly circulating, moving from one place to another, just a whole big whiteout inside her head.”

The interpretation by Eugenides of what Della thinks and feels warms with clarity, even though those in her life often are mystified by her behavior. “Going out in the snow, disappearing into it, wouldn’t be anything new to her,” Eugenides writes. “It would be like the outside meeting the inside. The two of them merging. Everything white. Just walk on out. Keep going. Maybe she’d meet someone out there, maybe she wouldn’t. A friend.”

These works by Glass and Eugenides have made me care about their characters, to want to understand them. I also want to know more about these writers and their motivations, and about how they get from the blank page to such meaningful written words.

About the mission facing all writers, Robinson writes: “When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected.”

Literature – complete with artistic mystery and written intrigue – is providing much more than a distraction from the concerns I have about the social disintegration around me that began accelerating a year ago. I’ll keep reading to increase my understanding of people and places, of threats and less sinister developments. And I’ll keep appreciating the work of creative artists who venture into the unknown and help me become a discoverer in my own way.

As Robinson says: “Writing should always be exploratory.”

Same with reading, my escapism of choice.