I have recently taken strides to revive my personal journal writing. It’s hella cheap therapy and can be really revealing and healing to just do stream of conscious on a question that at first seems simple–“What is happiness to you? Do you consider yourself a happy person or an unhappy and stressed person? Describe a time when you felt happy and when you made someone else happy.”–but can actually reveal depths you never knew your soul was capable of unveiling. It’s kind of like an onion. For example I journaled on that question today and realized how hard it was to describe happiness in my life. But for me, happiness is kind of akin to feeling exuberance and an almost cosmic connection to life energy. I thought about the things that make me feel alive, and I thought about books that have made me feel that way. Books that I’ve put down profoundly changed. Here’s a list of earth shattering fiction.
(Also, I’ve combined some books that are related.)
To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Hours by Michael Cunningham
I took an independent study in Virginia Woolf my senior year of college. I got a research grant to study soundscapes in her writing in the UK, so I went to the Isle of Skye, the setting of To the Lighthouse. God, I felt the shaking, paralyzing fear of mortality that Mrs. Ramsay feels when she hears the sound of the waves on the shore. I felt the same way walking along the coast, kicking pebbles and smuggling one smooth stone from the beach into my suitcase. I remember thinking to myself, God, I am alive, but if I were dead, scatter my ashes into the sea here on this island. I know, pretty earth shattering. And that’s what it’s like to read Virginia Woolf, someone who suffered and ultimately died of the same illness I have, bipolar disorder. Every time I read the words of someone who is/was mentally ill I feel a deep connection to them. Reading Mrs. Dalloway for the fourth or fifth time felt the same way. I had the same kind of manic flight of ideas as Mrs. Dalloway, the same profound depression of Septimus, and yet I close the cover of that book every time feeling more like a human who is connected to this strange mystery of life. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours reminded me of the power of fiction in the beginning of when I started to read again in the year after college. I was astounded by Cunningham’s ability to connect three women and bury references to Dalloway and Woolf within the story. I thought, Yes. This is what writing can do. And I want to devote my life to spreading my joy of fiction to others and to writing my own.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Time and time again I come back to this story and the way I first read it, which was slowly, and then all at once. I picked up my copy in Target in November 2012. I took a chance on it, thinking, why not? What is this book about illness and love and which carries glowing reviews? I lived alone in my apartment on weekends at the time, and it was Thanksgiving weekend because I bought it on Black Friday. I had a whole weekend in front of me to meander through this mystery book. And then I read it in 15 hours, split up by a night of sleep when I finally said to myself, “Sarah. Go to sleep. Leave some of this for tomorrow. Stretch it out.” I knew it was vibrant prose from the minute I opened it. I figured out where it was going early on. And yet I did not cry. I thought, Wow. This is life. It’s messy and complicated. That’s love. God let me have even a brief taste of love as intense and passionate as Hazel and Gus. Hazel and Gus’ refusal to give up, to stop and say, fuck it. Kill me. Let me die. To me, someone with a debilitating chronic illness, it gave me hope. I closed the book and said, Hot damn. I’m going to die one day. But for now, I’m going to live.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I’ve talked about this with people before, that I have a messy and disorganized mind at times, and I forget a lot. But I tend to remember the intense reading experience I have, the books that stick out as four or five stars, or the books that stick out as one or two stars. The Goldfinch nearly killed me, and not because it nearly broke my shoulders as I hauled it around. I tried to read it two or three times, but I finally pulled through in March 2014. And once I got going, I didn’t stop. It taught me so much. That there is some kind of crazy organization to life on earth. Things that happen have large repercussions or even small ones that are like pebbles which ripple long after they are tossed in the water. And Jesus, the final lines. As Theo says, I’m going to live this life and accept my mother’s death, accept the chaos I’ve been put through, because I am connected to other people I love, to a life I will live. And I felt the same way.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
This one goes way back. Way back to the summer before the freshman year of high school when I opened this book on summer vacation in Ithaca and was sucked in, reading it on the back of a motor boat, on the dock of the lake. I finally felt like someone got it, that Salinger depicted my life, my neuroses and alienation from happy people. I felt like Holden captured my despair and yet he did it. Somehow Holden reached across time to make me feel less alone. Salinger has that power, the power to talk to people through his prose and make them feel connected to someone, even if it’s only a reclusive writer and his eccentric characters.
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
This book was another one that I took a chance on. I read it during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 astounded at a book that made me feel so alive despite the overwhelming reality of impending death for the characters. I saw yet again the tenuous connections among people, the six degrees of separation way that we are all linked somehow. Some people survive the death sentence of genocide and war. And life is complicated and tragic. Things happen so fast and things happen so slow, the tick tock of death creeping upon you like Captain Hook’s alarm clock of doom. And yet, what choice do we have? We live. We embrace life and its imperfections. We say, I will take the chance that it will all end badly. I will live for others. I will not surrender. I will love. I will live. I will love.
Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
This was a book that took me by surprise. A fellow intern at n+1 recommended it to me in fall 2007, and I read it finally in winter and spring 2008. It was a tough year for me, lots of uncertainty of whether or not I would be healthy enough to transfer to school or resume my studies at Barnard. I was on medication that made it hard to concentrate and stunted my ability to read. Sophie’s Choice was a book that awoke a measure of hope in me. I thought, this is a book that talks about the big things. And god damn, I’m going to read it. And I did, amazed at Styron’s twists and turns, the tease between truth and fiction, memory and fabrication. For who can ever know the truth of our memories? And I know it has a bleak ending, but Stingo carries his friends’ memories forward and doesn’t let them die. It reminds me that there is such a thing as legacy, that a life that ended in a pointless way is capable of surviving if only as a lesson for someone else, as a way that someone makes a lasting impact. It taught me that great literature can do that, can make you live.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Yet another novel I picked up having low expectations and not sure if the hype was legit. But by god, this one deserves the hype. I love it. I love it so much. I love that it shows you how connected we are, that we are related to each other in some way, that things that happened decades ago have repercussions generations later. I’ve tried to describe this one to other people and usually resort to saying, “It’s about a collection of people who are on the precipice of failure, and it is about their choice to give in to that failure or take their life back and try once again to live.” (Okay most of the time it’s not that profound or polished when I say it to other people. Usually it’s like, “Well…just…just read it!”) I read this book in the midst of a family member’s decline into death. It was Christmas week 2014. Yet when I finished it, I thought, fuck yeah, I’m not giving in. I’m going to live this life for all those who struggled before me, and for myself, who wants to live.
Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale
I know. I’ve talked about this book a lot on here. And I can’t get over it. I really can’t. It was an intense reading experience for me. As is often the case with this type of book, I sought refuge in its pages in a difficult time. And I did. This book made me feel connected to people who experience disability, and people who struggle with feeling closed off from my love life and ability to live life despite all odds. Love will be messy and uneven but it will be passionate and take your breath away. I want that. And this book made me feel capable of having it.
So those are my top books that made me come alive and feel alive. What are some of yours?