My trainer and I were having a conversation today that gave me pause (this was in between wind sprints, which he claims have something to do with improving my VO2 max…I just call it Zombie Avoidance Tactics with Associated Panting…). He was asking me if I’d read The Hunger Games or the Harry Potter books, and I told him, yes, to both, and hadn’t I told him only last week that he would love The Hunger Games with all the killing and the running and the girl power (he’s writing his thesis on training young women athletes)?!
“Yes,” he said. “You did mention it, but you were disgusting and sweaty so I couldn’t take you seriously.” At least, I assume that’s what he was thinking, because to be honest, I would not trust a girl who sweats as much as I do either.
Just kidding. What he was actually saying, without saying it at all, is that he was a boy (well, a twenty-five year old male, but who are we kidding) and that boys and books have a rocky relationship, especially if said boy is also athletic and defines himself firmly in the physical realm. For all I’m scared of jumping hurdles and swinging a baseball bat in front of crowds of people who look much better in spandex than I do, my trainer is equally drawn to and afraid of books.
He wants to like them. He talks to me about them a lot, although always with a sheepish expression. He really loves to learn, but he’s most comfortable at seminars and in lectures. He seemed so hopeful today, while I was trying to hold myself in plank, inquiring whether there were lots of good books out there for guys.
“Maria,” he said, “are there lots of good books out there for guys?”
“Yes,” I replied. “I can think plenty of books you’d like.”
“Really?” I could tell from his voice that he didn’t believe me one bit.
We left it at that, but I went home disappointed that I hadn’t convinced him that books exist on every topic under, over, and through the sun. I thought of how much he would love The Hunger Games, or Into Thin Air, or Born to Run, or Ender’s Game, or Why I Fight…I could go on and on, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll come to the point that connects this conversation with my thoughts on The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.
The paragraph from this book that I shared on Monday, it spoke to how heavy a heart grows from reading. The whole book weaves in and out of its own narrative to prove just that point. And even September, its twelve-year-old protagonist, understands this on a fundamental level – reading about experiences outside of our own make our lives and thoughts and dreams that much richer and more expansive. Reading allows us a landscape to play out our wildest desires and most hidden fears without relinquishing power. It’s liberating even while it bears down our hearts with the cares of the world.
Awhile back, I had the pleasure of reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I didn’t know anything about living on a reservation before I read it (aside from the very little we’re taught in school), but he allowed me inside his story so that a part of me could be opened to the hardships and humor of a world far removed from the one I live in. And when Micah True (aka Caballo Blanco) was found dead this past weekend, a man who I only knew from the pages of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, I felt an intensity of loss I never expected – because McDougall wrote of his friend with such frank tenderness and esteem, I too experienced a deep stillness at the news his unexpected passing.
It really doesn’t matter whether we like fiction or biographies or poetry or stories written for children – it’s a trusting of books that opens us to the rawness of loving other people, different people, hard to imagine or even like people. I love that Valente’s book uses one girl’s adventure to explore this idea in a way that most adults would instantly grasp and savor, and that children will wonder at and explore with every passing year.
In her words:
I shall tell you what Calpurnia Farthing said. “The riddle of the Ravished,” she whispered, “is that they must always go down into the black naked and lonesome. But they cannot come back up into the light alone.” (pg 132)
or, as Lev Grossman wrote, in his crushingly true fashion, at the end of The Magician King:
He was alone. The stone square was silent. He felt dizzy, and not just because he’d hit his head. It was all crashing in on him now. He’d thought he’d known what his future looked like, but he’d been mistaken. His life would be something else now. He was starting over, only he didn’t think he had the strength to start over. He didn’t know if he could stand up. (p 399)
I have heard it said many times that we come into this world alone, and that we will leave it the same way. And, you see, alone, we are all tired, broken, ignorant. We are solitary heroes in search of a story. Thank goodness, then, for friends and enemies, for misunderstandings, adventure, and raw, heavy hearts in the process of growing up.