Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How Books Show What Stitches Us Together

This is stupid. This is so stupid. Really.

After admiring Helen DeWitt for years because of Lightning Rods and Your Name Here, I was finally able to get a copy of The Last Samurai, her debut novel that, despite establishing her as, well, a genius I'd say, had gone out of print not too long after it appeared. It came out in 2000 and, along with a few other books from roughly that era (Infinite Jest comes to mind, A Visit from the Goon Squad a little later), is in that strange middle time when writers and readers were beginning to explore what could replace postmodernism. It is a celebration of writing and culture and intelligence and it is also about the impossibility of being a parent and it is also about the impossibility of being a child and it is also about how beautiful it is to be different and it is also about how challenging it is to be different.

But that really isn't the point. At least, not this point at this moment. Though the book is filled with the kind of stuff I usually write about: the idea that “every great book teaches us how to read itself” and “a writer triumphs by giving us the resources for play and growth” and “language is a jail whose bars we can bend,” and even “'intelligence' is not an idea that behaves,” that isn't what I'm writing about now.

Since I'm talking about a recent experience, feel free to safely assume that events in the world beyond my control but not beyond my responsibility were making me feel despondent. (Good old 2016.) Most of the time you can say, “Well, there's always something, right?” and though that's true, there have been times in the last year or so when the reply would be, “Yeah, but not like this.” I could still remind myself about the good in the world, still be thankful for what was in my life, still identify and enact things that I could do that could, in their own small way, maybe help a little, but it wasn't always easy. And also, at times, it felt like, as important as self-care is, despondent was the best way to feel. Despondency is sometimes the correct response. There is something important about getting close to, but not crossing over into, despair.

And then, I'm reading The Last Samurai, and, somewhat obliquely (as is the nature of the book) I discover that Ludo, the child genius and one of the protagonists, and I have the same birthday. Knowing how well DeWitt balances reference universes, I wouldn't be surprised if she were playing games with astrological cusps and equinoxes or some crazy shit I don't know about, but that's not the point.

There's ennui and then there's CAT ENNUI.
I said, out loud, for only my cat Circe to hear, wrapped around a smile “Holy shit!” I know. Stupid.

I don't entirely know why this absolute total coincidence, this 1-in-366 (Leap Year) chance of convergence, made me so happy in this weird little quiet moment when there was so much other more important stuff going on in the world, but it did. Here randomly, really meaninglessly, was a stupid, simple, beautiful, connection between me and another human being. That date means something to Helen DeWitt and it means something to me.

When someone writes a book, they encase a fragment of their own humanity between the covers and then give it to us and then that fragment belongs exclusively to us and also universally to everyone who might read it.

But the book doesn't just stitch the author and the reader together. There are now stitches between me and every other person with my birthday who reads The Last Samurai, and between every other person who loves the movie The Seven Samurai and reads the book The Last Samurai, and between every other person who values and/or enjoys displays of academic intelligence and reads The Last Samurai, and I imagine through my connections to friends who are parents, between every parent who, in the moment, because they're so sleep deprived, stressed out by shit at their job, worried about the bills, suddenly, when their child asks, after knowing the water cycle since elementary school, have no fucking clue why it rains, and reads Sibylla's attempts to encourage, contain, and support a child far too big for the world in The Last Samurai. And those stitches are only limited by language and literacy. Time and distance, the usual forces of connective erosion, are powerless.

It is hard to see a connection to people you just see on the street. Sure, we all know we are connected. We all know about the whole human family and such, but you can know something in many different ways and some of those don't really mean all that much. But by encasing humanity in something that will stay still and wait for us, books are able to present those connections to us in some of those ways of knowing that mean quite a lot.

It would probably be too much to say that books themselves stitch us together, but there are few better ways to see those stitches than reading a book.

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