Image: Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, Young Girl Reading, 1868, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It should come as no surprise that we at Books@Work are readers ourselves. Rachel Burstein has shared the books for which she is thankful here and Ann Kowal Smith has shared her passion for libraries here. This week, Capria Jaussen, our Operations Coordinator, reflects on her history with books and the power of reading a variety of interesting texts.
I cannot remember a time when books were not a central part of my life. My parents, one a public school teacher and one the ultimate autodidact, were firmly committed to books as both a tool for education and as a medium for personal transformation. Recently my mother, in a rather confessional tone, told me that she used to spend a part of her meager earnings each month for a housekeeper, which gave her more time to read to my brother, sister and me. As I now read to my own young son every night, in the same way my parents did to me (the same books even!), I am struck again by how profoundly books have shaped me and am interested in the many reasons I continue to seek them out.
Characters are one of the biggest draws for me, as they are for many participants in Books@Work. In one case, a participant reported identifying with a character in a short story so profoundly that it helped her process the overwhelming emotions of the long illness and ultimate death of her father-in-law.
I’m attracted to characters that I either readily identify with or who clearly remind me of people I have actually met. I know many people with the character of Charlotte Bronte’s St. John Rivers (from Jane Eyre): proud and severe yet generous and eloquent. Anne Elliot, from Jane Austen’s Persuasion, possesses a quiet care for others and a deeply harbored disappointment in herself, a hallmark of many women in my family. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is full of characters with very human traits, from Samuel Hamilton’s sociability and wisdom to Adam Trask’s naiveté and vulnerability. I KNOW these characters. I understand their motivations and I derive comfort from feeling like I know the lay of the land when I read these books.
Companionship is not the only motivation for reading, though. There are many books that have challenged my way of looking at the world, whose concepts have pushed me away from feeling safe into the perspective of another. I reconsider my ideas of justice and motivation when I read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, or grapple with the contradictory notion of black slave owners in The Known World by Edward Jones. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road tests my assumptions of how to be a good parent in the midst of harrowing circumstances. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie redefines my sense of the sacred and the profane. These books propel me to greater empathy and expand my horizons in a way that is more like a respected teacher than a friend.
Sometimes the very language of the book itself shapes me. The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner was so difficult and strange on first encounter. I knew the story of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but had to work so hard to figure out who was actually speaking at any given moment. I love both the genderless narrator in Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson and the gauzy obscurity of the language in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. It is not so much the story or characters or concepts in these books but the very way of telling that displaces me as I read. I feel disoriented, like being in a maze, where the writing itself is so beautiful and uncanny you can’t help but want to explore.
These are even more reasons why I am so deeply invested in books. My first encounter with poetry, so simultaneously lavish and parsimonious, that I was left winded. My complete absorption with science fiction and fantasy, those worlds near enough our own that suck us in but are strange enough that we never want to leave. The searing prodding I feel from great non-fiction, or journalism, or even an essay.
What I hear from people participating in Books@Work seminars continues to solidify my belief in the power of a book’s great characters, meaningful concepts and challenging writing to transform readers. Suffice it to say, there is no single reason why I read, and I expect to discover many more with every turn of the page.