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Susan Ito trying to do it all: reading writing mothering spousing daughtering working living

Thursday, February 09, 2006

A Book to Cry Over

I've been thinking about one of Susan Sontag's quotes, the one where she says
Literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.

And it made me reflect about what literature has made me weep.

Many pieces of writing make me tear up a little bit, but I can think of two recent instances where I actually put the book down and sobbed for a long time. One was while reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.

I began reading it about a year ago, when life was feeling particularly bleak, and had been for some time. I was in a dark, sad space. I was waiting for a friend to arrive from New York for her book tour and had just set up our new sofabed for the same time. I'd bought a featherbed and new, cream colored bedding, and the whole thing felt like a huge, puffy cloud. I was the only one in the house. I lay down on the bed, which held me very cozily and gently, and I picked up Gilead and began to read. I just read the first paragraph of the first page, and immediately my breath caught in my chest and my eyes started burning.

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said Where, and I said, to be with the Good Lord, and you said Why, and I said, Because I'm old, you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it.

And I guess that was it for me. I just fell into the book, and that voice, even though I don't really keep company with many people (any people) who refer to the Good Lord. It filled me with such longing and emotion and sadness, and it kept going with every page that I read. It's a book which is really a letter, a very long letter from an old father to his young son. And I thought, I would give anything, anything in the world to have a letter like this, from any one of my parents. It's a beautiful, arresting, devastating book, although I suppose some people might find it boring. It either grabs you by the heart, or it doesn't. One of my most favorite people in the world, a wonderful writer in her own right, gave it to me because she'd started it and given up. I guess most books are like that. I've hated some books that people raved about. But finding this book was like finding something that I felt had been written solely for me.

I was shocked when it won the Pulitzer Prize; not because I didn't think it deserved it (it does, a million times over) but because it had felt so personal to me and I didn't think it could possibly touch anyone else in the same way. But I was wrong about that. Obviously it touched a lot of people.

My husband picked it up one night and started reading it; I was a little worried about his reaction because I thought if he hated it I might not be able to continue living with him. (JK! JK!) But he loved it, too, and as he read it I heard him making the same whimpery, gaspy little noises that I made, and his eyes teared up and I knew we were reading the same book.

He generally likes to read with a pen in his mouth which he will take out at intervals and underline passages that mean a lot to him. With Gilead, he was aware that it was my book, and he wasn't sure it would be all right to deface it, so instead he made several dozen tiny dog-ears in the pages. And later, when it was my turn to read, I'd look at the folded down pages (I have to say, I like underlining a lot better; it doesn't hurt the paper the way that dog-ears do) and try to figure out what it was on that page that made him want to remember. Sometimes I'd ask him, and he'd read it to me, and sometimes I just guessed. We passed the book back and forth - he finished it first - and it was this silent conversation that went on.

I finished the book while our family was on vacation in Japan in April. (this was also one of my world's record for slowest book ever read; generally I can finish a novel in about 4 hours, and this one doesn't have a lot of pages, but I couldn't really read more than a page at a time) At one point near the very end, I reached a certain point and just started sobbing. I felt as if my whole body was going to split into pieces. We were in a very small hotel room in Kyoto and the girls came in, curious and worried. He shooed them away. "Mom is just reading her book," he said. And he sat there with me and let me weep for about half an hour.

The book is all warped and tattered now. He's on his third read, and I am on my second. All I have to do is open to a certain page or two or three and my heart swells up and my eyes fill to the brim. And it makes me feel infinitely grateful to literature, and to Marilynne Robinson, for allowing me to feel so alive.


Anonymous Diana said...

This was such a beautiful entry. I learned at least as much about you and your husband as I did about the book, and am envious of your relationship.

(I loved the book, too.)

Thursday, February 09, 2006 10:48:00 PM

Blogger Miriam Unruh said...

Susan, you should really send this to Marilynn Robinson.

Your blog made me cry, and it's lovely reading another reader's response to a very powerful book. I gave it to my mom awhile back. Like your worry when your husband started reading it, I was worried that she'd be indifferent. Thank goodness that's not the case.

Friday, February 10, 2006 9:20:00 AM

Blogger melanie said...

Oh! I haven't read Gilead yet, it's been on my looooooong to-read list, but now I must!

I've been surprised at the things that make me cry in books. Last spring I re-read House on Mango Street for a class and one line just make me break in tears. But I love that about books.

Thanks for this post. I agree with Miriam, you should send to Marilynne Robinson.

Friday, February 10, 2006 10:12:00 AM

Blogger Susan said...

Melanie and Miriam, I just sent an email to MR with a link to this blog. Gulp.

Thanks for all the kind words.

Friday, February 10, 2006 10:18:00 AM

Blogger Bustopher Jones said...

You've definitely inspired me to give Gilead another try. I kept falling asleep and finally gave up on it halfway through.

Friday, February 10, 2006 12:15:00 PM

Blogger C(h)ristine said...

my goodness, what an incredible advocacy for this book! i will have to pick it up now.

Friday, February 10, 2006 3:13:00 PM

Blogger Masha said...

Susan, this is such a great entry. I suspect I need to be in the right place for this book, and want to try it again.

Saturday, February 11, 2006 5:32:00 AM

Blogger Susan said...

Masha, I'm sorry, but I'm never giving your book back! But I'll get you a new one :-)

Saturday, February 11, 2006 7:32:00 AM

Blogger Susan said...

Bustopher, the key to me not getting bored was to read very, very slowly. Like a few paragraphs or a page at a time. When I got into my fast-reading or skimming mode, I quickly got bored as well. It's a book that needs to be absorbed verrrrry slowly.

And having said that, I think it's also definitely not everyone's cup of tea. I'm always stunned to find that so many people love it as much as I do.

Saturday, February 11, 2006 7:34:00 AM

Anonymous Linda R said...

oh, susan, this --

"and I knew we were reading the same book"

is so lovely

Saturday, February 11, 2006 2:37:00 PM

Anonymous caroline said...

I've recommended this book to so many people who were intially put off by the book's subject, or the narrator, people who thought the book would just be heavy and depressing, no matter how many times I told them what a beautiful, beautiful writer Robinson is. The book surprised me so; I never expected to like it either, really, but I copied out passages all the way along, and when I finished reading the last page, I turned to the first and started reading all over again.
Now I will refer people to your post when they doubt my recommendation!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006 11:59:00 PM

Blogger Allison said...

susan, the many things the book did to you, your entry did to me! very touching and heartbreaking-- the moment in the hotel with your husband especially and your passing the book back and forth as dialogue. beautiful, thank you. and i'll definitely be picking Gilead up!

Friday, February 17, 2006 2:07:00 PM

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