I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, but the world seems so much messier to me than it once did, and much of the reading I’ve done in the past year has been with the hope of making sense of it, untangling the various strands to learn how and why things are joined, as well as how and why other things are broken.
Two of the books that have helped me, that have delivered the sort of clarity I was craving, are Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson.
I almost didn’t want to say the Coates. I hate being obvious. But the mere fact that Between the World and Me will end up on many people’s best-of lists didn’t seem like a very good reason for leaving it off mine, when in fact it deserves to be there (and everywhere else).
I read the book during a trip out of the country, when I had a blissfully long flight that let me sink into the density of the language and of the ideas. By the time I stepped off the plane, I had dog-eared almost a third of the pages in the book. Is it perfect? No. Is it great? Absolutely. It brilliantly situates the personal within much broader frameworks — historical, political, human — and as I read it, I could feel the boundaries of my thinking expand and I could feel my own sense of the world change shape. I know the book has been criticized for its male focus, but for me Coates’s insistence on the physical body sent my mind racing with parallel thoughts about what it is to be a woman in this world, and therefore it pushed the boundaries of my own thinking on that subject, too. Which is to say, the words on the page are one thing, but the magic is in what they do to you as a reader, and Coates’s words did a lot for me.
As for When I Was a Child I Read Books, I will be the first to admit that it was too much for me sometimes. I had to re-read certain sentences more than twice, and still I wasn’t sure that I was grasping everything they had to offer. Which is scary to consider, because even in my failing, they offered so much.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about imagination lately and how it relates to empathy, so I gobbled up lines like this:
I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly…I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.
And in light of the current world order — or disorder, as it were — lines like this resonated deeply:
In fact, Europe has gone berserk from time to time over this anxiety about mixed populations…The assumption behind it is that people who differ from oneself are therefore enemies who have either ruined everything or are about to…When this assumption takes hold, the definition of community hardens and contracts and becomes violently exclusive and defensive.
It feels sometimes like the universe gives you exactly what you need at the very time you need it. Both of these books were that for me. A balm for anxious thinking, and an incitement toward more curious inquiry. The tangles of the world will never be undone, no matter how hard we try, but books like these remind me of the beauty that can emerge simply in the effort.
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