We think we know them, don’t we? How familiar they are! After all, we’ve spent so much time together. For years, decades, lifetimes even. Minutes add up to days, pages become books, on and on, until their words roll off our tongues as if they belong to us. They are family whose photographs are never pasted into the album.
In the peculiar way that words are comforting, books often feel like home. It’s a tortured comparison, to be sure, but is there a reader alive who hasn’t wanted to crawl into the world of a novel or short story and nest there for eternity? Who hasn’t felt a mesmeric connection to certain authors? What a grand feeling! How light and bold and generous the world seems after you’ve converged with a writer’s words or philosophy! Suddenly, anything is possible. Your wildest hopes and dreams and ambitions are mere inches in a mile, able to be crossed with ease.
Eventually, the world intrudes. Reality gestures. Obligations assert themselves, bossier than before. You settle back into life, real life, limiting life. Things are dirtier here. When you’re lucky enough to have found a new literary friend, though, some of their lessons stick. Radical perspectives don’t disappear when you close the books from which they’ve sprung. Questions abound. They nag at you, they make you think, they open doors.
Even the most straightforward stories, by their mere existence, invite interpretation. No one reads a piece of fiction exactly the way the next person does. Our emotions and experiences instinctively try to skew outcomes to our individual ways of seeing. We like to extend this to the lives of our favourite authors. We like to have things in common with them. We like to recognize a bit of ourselves in their actions and choices. We like, we like, we like….In our enthusiasm it is easy to forget that the relationship between writer and reader is the result of a fantastical co-dependency, a continuously shifting performance put on by strangers seeking mutual satisfaction. This makes it hard to locate the line between reality and projection, our desires and the writer’s personal truth.
“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”-Mary Flannery O’Connor
My Relationship with Mary Flannery O’Connor (Did Not Get Off to a Good Start):
The first time I tried reading a story by Mary Flannery O’Connor, I put it down after a few pages. I knew she wasn’t for me. Maybe she was grand for someone else, sure, but we weren’t going to work out. Why waste the effort? Fortunately, she was more determined than I was. She wouldn’t let go. There was a nagging in the back of my mind telling me to give it another shot. A few days later, I restarted the story. Nope. Same thing: reading this lady’s fiction was headache-inducing. What was the point of continuing if I hated it so much? I wanted to fling the book across the living room, not read through another 500+ pages.