Last night I had a wonderful opportunity to talk a little about books and what I love about them—and one specific book I love (Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, about which I am happy to talk if you’re interested). A classmate/colleague/friend is teaching an online course in which she wanted some recorded examples of regular ol’ library students talking about books, and I was asked to participate. It was an enormous amount of fun, so much so that to talk excessively about it will seem like bragging, and blogging is already an exercise that makes me feel perilously close to Narcissus at times, so I’ll focus only on one moment that’s sticking with me. Having spoken about Doomsday Book and why it resonates for me, another classmate/colleague/friend (Althea, who blogs with The Bookaneers—I need to add them to the blogroll in the right sidebar!) commented that the way I often talk about books emphasizes how they inspire optimism about human beings. I tend to read for (and talk about) things like hope, and courage, and dignity. I can read very sad or even disturbing books (Doomsday Book is often perilously sad, and another book I love, The Sparrow, is a really harrowing experience to read), but I seem to look for those things, and to savor them when I find them.
I mention this because I think it’s worth pondering as a key to why I’ve reacted to the Pulitzer winners thus far as I have. His Family, the first novel I read on this quest, has been panned by some of my fellow travelers (the witty and wonderful ladies of Along With A Hammer, to be precise), and I get why they disliked it. But I found it really comforting, and as I look back I think it’s because it emphasized that sunny-eyed hope of a better world that had not quite lost out to jaded cynicism yet in 1918. I think my attachment to One of Ours, a Willa Cather novel that was also pretty darn idealistic, is another example of this kind of reading. I like reading the way I do, but I wonder if it will make me miss out on really good books that do not quite brim with hope. I don’t care for saccharine things, so I don’t fear that I’ll “overindulge” in some really excessively sentimental writing, but I worry that I can be too dismissive of the bleaker stuff.
I share this just because I’m pondering it. I’m wondering if The Age of Innocence shows anything noble about humans (if so, I’d love opinions as to why, and if not, I’m wondering why I fell in love with it). I’m wondering if I’d have responded better to a novel like Arrowsmith or Alice Adams (sorry, Able McLaughlins, but no amount of reflection could salvage your reputation) if I was a little more open to that more cutting, sarcastic, cynical perspective that I think both Sinclair Lewis and Booth Tarkington really thrived on. And I’m wondering if in the long run this way of reading serves me well or not—whether it’s this kind of search for optimism that makes literature such a sustaining presence in my life, or if I risk becoming a 21st century Miss Prism, primly informing people from my pedestal that to be a good novel, the good must end happily and the wicked unhappily, for that is the meaning of fiction. I threw down American Gods by Neil Gaiman after 50 pages of despair, after all: I make drastic decisions about books (even books beloved by people I respect), and I wonder what this is symptomatic of. Comments are, as always, welcome, but if none appear, I’m sure I’ll muse on this again before too long, especially once I pick up Laughing Boy again. Happy reading!