As I get older, I tend to read very old books. Centuries old. Modern writing has become something of a mystery to me and I eschew best sellers for exactly that reason. A good book is a priceless gem and one where long after we have finished reading it and the pages are consigned to our memories, we remember the words, the phrases and usually one moment in the entire book that remains a favourite thought. For example, in Memoires d'Outre Tombe by Chateaubriand, it is the moment he realises he has fallen in love. In Wuthering Heights, it is the symbol of the window as a yearning to belong. In Madame Bovary, it is the image of Charles, a broken man at the very end of the book. Books are like people- they can be summarised or pigeon-holed but how they move us is unique.
I recently received some very old books as a gift from a dear friend. One of these books, Saint Simon's Memoirs will take me many months to finish. The book is written in old French where the 'a' appears as an 'o'. Saint Simon was a nobleman who spent most of his life in the 18th century in the court of Versailles. The shenanigans Saint Simon witnessed amongst his peers are exactly the same as today. Human nature has not evolved at all; we behave, think and manifest our emotions in exactly the same way. We jostle for position, hold grudges, ruin the lives of others, steal from our families, disinherit our siblings, torment our elderly parents, use each other, barter attention and affection, abandon our spouses for younger models, marry for money, mock our politicians, fall out of favour, become exiled, lose everything to fate or chance, die of disease, privation, despair or excess, just as our ancestors did. Human beings are to this day, creatures of the earth and succumb to earthly passions (the etymological meaning of the word 'passion' incidentally is 'to suffer').
A good book therefore should recount a story that we are already familiar with- one that draws on life and of which we are more than likely to have had the experience already so we can empathise with the characters. For example, all of us have had our heart broken and know what that feels like. Romantic fiction is so popular because the basic storyline is universal: the need to love and to be loved. And the path to true love is never straightforward hence the journey becomes the story. Would Wuthering Heights have been been so memorable had Heathcliff not heard Catherine reject him in that famous line to Nelly, and had he not returned after years of silence, and to find Catherine married and had he not tormented her in both life and in death and not died himself? We all wish for a happy ending but know it is never within reach yet our jaws drop wide open at the intensity and brutality of the love between Catherine and Heathcliff and wish we could experience that type of 'passion'.
Reading is both a process of awakening and insight. An understanding of life and human nature and poignantly, a mechanism to cope.
In screenwriting we are taught to craft a story with a character arc where the hero comes out in the end a changed person. Hollywood also insists on resolution in the third and final act without which audiences would remain baffled and unsatisfied- as if real life ever has resolution all the time. People can live their whole lives in a mumble-jumble without ever achieving a full circle in their heads. And many more get hard done by and and never get the payback they think they are entitled to.
But let us leave the fantasy world of Hollywood and return to the business of living. There has been a surge of misery memoirs where the most depraved, deprived and tragic lives are given exposure. Many of these books become bestsellers and there clearly is a market for a type of voyeurism where seemingly we need to know that we are not as unfortunate as so-and-so. Do we benefit from knowing that someone's mother was unbelievably cruel and horrid due to her deeply narcissistic personality which made her a poor excuse for a parent? Does it help to know that others are more flawed than we are? I would venture to say that only 'sad f...s read sad books'.
There are books that have quite literally shaped my thinking. King Lear, Siddhartha, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Art of the Samourai, Sartre's plays, L'Etranger, and all of which I read in my teenage and young adult years. That imprint is fixed forever and despite the millions of other words I have read since then, I am all of those books.
Photo copyright SvD.