I’ve been thoroughly enjoying some lazy days until work starts up next week. Writing, reading, crafting, cooking, and lots of putzing around…it’s great to be back in the Midwest.

One of my last days in New York I found Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom for a really good price, and I’ve been slowly making my way through it for the past 2 weeks.

The writing alone is enough to make me keep reading, but I am most interested in the deeper, subtler conflicts within Franzen’s characters. I am having a hard time deciphering a lot of it, but that’s usually how it is with the best kinds of books, I think.

One quote from Freedom I have been thinking a lot about lately:

“The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”

Rage, one New York Times reviewer writers, because “we helplessly collide with others in equal pursuit of their sacred freedoms, which, more often than not, seem to threaten our own.”

And that’s one of the reasons Freedom is such a hard, sad book to read. It is a story of a family in which each member is individually chasing after what he or she wants (or at least what they think they want). Repulsively selfish, and yet so human.

I’m balancing the sometimes-dense prose of Freedom with C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, which, though much lighter on a sentence-by-sentence level, is still taking me awhile to get through because I am dog-earring and marking and copying down half the book! Every time I read it I re-remember things that I never want to forget, but always manage to. Like this, written from the perspective of one demon to another about God and humanity:

“When He talks of their losing their selves, He only means their abandoning the clamor of self-will…He boasts (I am afraid, sincerely,) that when they are wholly His, they are more themselves than ever.”

And what would you know, Freedom and Screwtape Letters, written decades and oceans (okay, an ocean) apart, are beginning to speak to each other. Each is informing my experience of the other…one of my favorite things about reading.

The Social Isolate

January 7, 2011

Yesterday when editing my blog post, I began to wonder if my sensitivity to and interaction with fictional characters might seem a bit excessive or silly to some people. (I dislike the self-consciousness and even self-importance that accompanies the first few entries of a blog, and I hope I can find some way to trick myself back into my old, carefree writing habits). And then I realized this train of thought undoubtedly stems from an essay I read a few weeks ago by Jonathan Franzen entitled “Why Bother?” (from his collection How to Be Alone), in which Franzen talks with Stanford Social Scientist Shirley Brice Heath about different types of readers.

I learned something about myself in this essay. Like Franzen, I was surprised to find just how well I fit into one of Heath’s major categories of readers: the “social isolate.” Heath explains her classification better than I can:

“There’s the social isolate—the child who from an early age felt different from the people around him…What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world. But that world, then, is a world you can’t share with the people around you—because it’s imaginary. And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read. Though they aren’t present, they become your community.”

Though I don’t think I had a heavy sense of “being different” as a child, books have always ministered to me more than people have. I think it would be safe to categorize Madeleine L’Engle, whose brilliant The Crosswicks Journal series I am currently reading, as a “social isolate” reader as well. L’Engle, an only child, was served dinner in her playroom (her parents usually dined out or had a fancy dinner by themselves), where she always ate “with my feet on the desk and a book on my chest.” But L’Engle, unlike me, was a strong extrovert: she went on to star in plays, to speak at conferences—sounds quite unlike a “social isolate.” To my relief, Heath goes on to explain that her title may be a bit misleading:

“Reading does resemble more nerdy pursuits in that it’s a habit that both feeds on a sense of isolation and aggravates it. Simply being a ‘social isolate’ as a child does not, however, doom you to bad breath and poor party skills as an adult…It’s just that at some point you’ll begin to feel a gnawing, almost remorseful need to be alone and do some reading—to reconnect to that community.”

I wonder how many of Heath’s conclusions can be applied not just to readers, but to musicians, artists, gamers even? (I recently read Paul La Farge‘s “Destroy All Monsters,” a fascinating and thought-provoking essay about the game Dungeons & Dragons and escapism.)

But there’s more. I have never come up with a satisfying answer to the question “Why do you want to be a writer?” (or even the less intimidating “Why are you a writing major?”), but when I read Heath’s following explanation for the first time, I’m sure my heart started to beat a bit faster:

“If writing was the medium of communication within the community of childhood, it makes sense that when writers grow up they continue to find writing vital to their sense of connectedness.”

Of course, much of why people feel the need to write cannot be reduced to words (much less sociological statements); how fitting that thousands of poems and stories have been written attempting to explain this urge. But maybe next time someone asks me why I write, I will find a way to slip “vital to my sense of connectedness” into my bumbling attempt at an answer…