Thursday, January 21, 2010

Escape the ego

I was surprised to be impressed by Elizabeth Gilbert in her recent Chatelaine interview. I am one of those irritating people who has never read Eat Pray Love but holds strong opinions about it anyway, so the interview was the first time I'd ever been exposed to Gilbert directly (as opposed to via one of her ardent devotees). She seemed terrifically level-headed about the impact of her book upon her fans, noting that readers who'd decided to follow in her eating, praying, loving footsteps were probably insane. She had smart things to say about women and their expectations for relationships, for happiness. But what I noted most of all was the following: “I don’t think women today read for escape; they read for clues."

I loved that. Because it's exactly the way I read, I think, to break it down and enable me to see the world in miniature, as manageable. Which, however conversely, is to be able to look at the big picture and regard it all at once, perhaps for the very first time. Fiction is a study in the hypothetical, a test-run for the actual. An experiment. What if the world was this? And we can watch the wheels turn and this bit of sample life run its course to discover. And I don't mean that literature is smaller than life, no. Literature is life, but it's just life you can hold in your hand, stick in your backpack, and I'm reassured by that, because the world is messy and sprawling, but if you take it down to the level of story, I am capable of some kind of grasp. Of beginning to understand what this world is, how to be in it. Certainly, I read for clues.

But then Elizabeth Gilbert went and ruined the whole thing, continuing, "The criticism of memoirs is that people read them to be voyeurs. But a lot of people read them for help and answers and perspective.” So she wasn't actually talking about fiction, which takes the wind of out of my sails, and now she's relegated reading in general to the self-help rack. Which is boring, troubling, limiting. So there ends my love affair with Elizabeth Gilbert, perhaps because I'm skeptical of memoirs and the kind of truth any reader might hope to find there.

And then I came across this video of Fran Lebowitz on Jane Austen (who Lebowitz says is popular for all the wrong reasons). Lebowitz says, “To lose yourself in a book is the desire of the bookworm, to be taken. And that’s my desire... [which] may come from childhood. The discovery of the world, which I discovered in a library-- I lived in a little town and the library was the world. This is the opposite way that people are taught to read now. People are consistently told, 'What can you learn about your own life from the novel?' 'What lessons will this teach you?' 'How can you use this?' This is a philistine idea, this is beyond vulgar, and I think this is it is an awful away to approach anything… A book is not supposed to be a mirror. It’s supposed to be a door.”

Which was something I could get behind. I was finished with Elizabeth Gilbert, and was about to jump on the Fran Lebowitz reading-wagon, when it occured to me, "To lose yourself in a book is the desire of the bookworm, to be taken." And is that not the very definition of "escape"? Escapism, which is all about stupid women reading pink shoe novels on the beach, with Fran Lebowitz alongside them? I couldn't see it.

But escapism is surely what she's advocating, however much "the world" is what she is escaping to. And it occurs to me that Elizabeth Gilbert's clue-seeking readers are escapists just as much, however in a far more literal sense. That they're plotting a way out of their humdrum lives, just as Lebowitz was doing back at that small town library. Searching for different kind of place for themselves.

Do I read for escape? I don't know. Does reading for fun count as escape? Does reading to relax? Interestingly, the books I'd read for fun or relaxation are those that would make me "lose myself" the least, which would make them the least escapist of all. I just finished The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, for example, which was fun and fluffy as you like, but Century is a book that's more taken me away of late. You wouldn't call it escapist though, because that's such a pejorative term, but now that I've thought about it, I'm not so sure it should be, and it's becoming increasingly clear to me that the divide is not so firm at all.

It's about time for a Diana Athill reference, I think. Though she's a memoirist like Elizabeth Gilbert, and one that people rave about with just as much enthusiasm, but for some reason I actually do plan to read Athill's memoir one of these days, and I trust the wisdom implicit in what she has to say. My impression is that by reading Athill, we learn about the world through her prism, where in reading Eat Pray Love, we get Elizabeth Gilbert over and over. (Forgive me as I speculate about two books I haven't read. And correct me if I'm wrong). Perhaps also it's important that Athill is old and has years of experience, while Gilbert just once took a really great vacation.

Athill is quoted as saying, “Anything absorbing makes you become not 'I' but 'eye'--you escape the ego.” And so is this the kind of escape we're talking about? What Lebowitz is after? That with the best kind of books we get the world, get out of ourselves for a while, forget our problems.

Perhaps reading is a bit like love. Just when we're not actively out looking for "help, answers and perspective", that's when we might actually stand a chance of finding it.