I love reading a book that leaves me feeling like I have a strong affinity with the author or the main character. Some might say that empathy has never been one of my strong points so perhaps literature enables me to feel this connection with people that I otherwise find rather difficult to do in real life.
My first recollection of feeling empathy with a fictional character was when I was in primary school in Port Elizabeth and my mother would take me once a month to the North End public library. It was not as beautiful as the main library in town but it was still a charming old building with high arched windows, wooden shelves going all the way up to the ceiling, narrow windy staircases and wrought iron balustraded walkways. I loved the smell of wood and books and the quiet of the place. It was here I discovered Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. There were about 8 books in the series and by the time I had finished one, I would be desperate to get to the next. I so loved Anne Shirley that I was devastated when she passed a remark about a girl called Kathleen – something along the lines of her being pleased that her name was spelt with a K because spelt with a C, the name is so smug. I was cut to the quick, as my name is Cathleen, spelt with a C. I have to admit things were never quite the same between Anne and me after that!
Later, J.D. Salinger introduced me to the wonderful Glass family and Franny, in particular. Although Buddy Glass is my favourite Salinger character, I wanted Franny and Zooey as friends. Often during difficult times, I turned to my “bible” Franny and Zooey for comfort, even taking it with me when I went in to hospital to have Kiera. My GP, Walter Savage, who delivered both my children, spotted the little book on my bedside table. “Don’t you think it’s time to move on?” he said!
There are authors who, after reading their books, I feel like I know personally and in fact, on a few occasions have even come close to writing to them to express my admiration and affection. Paul Theroux, Isabel Allende and Barbara Kingsolver are three that come to mind at different times in my life. And now I have another, Helen Macdonald, thanks to my friend Chris who very kindly sent me a copy of Macdonald’s book H is for Hawk. I’ve just finished it and I really didn’t want it to come to an end. If I’m reading something light, I usually read it in one go – almost to get it over with so that I can find out who dunnit. With H is for Hawk, I savoured it for as long as I could, like sucking on a sweet for ages before it dissolves. She writes so beautifully that you have to read every word, sometimes repeatedly, like this sentence, which I find so incredibly moving:
We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost.
Every time I read that it means something else to me.
I came across this quote today on Brain Pickings:
It is a fault to wish to be understood before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves.
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
I think Helen Macdonald not only makes herself clear to herself but she helps us see ourselves more clearly too. If I had a tribe, she would definitely be part of it and I wish I could invite her for dinner.