“Every book is a self-help book.” I saw this quote from comedian Marc Maron this week. I don’t know the context in which it was said, and don’t know if it was meant to be humorous, but I found it thought-provoking, particularly in light of a non-book experience I had the week before.
The non-book experience was pretty mundane, at least on the surface. My sister is now a grandmother for the first time. Her sons are a few years older than my son, and I was the inheritor of vast amounts of baby clothing. I faithfully put it away after use, along with all my son’s “new” attire, in hope that I would use it again. Life didn’t work out that way, and that’s fine, but the cartons have been in the back corner of the attic for almost thirty years, one of those “I’ll get to it” jobs. The new grandmother wondered if I had a particular outfit from the proud new father’s own babyhood. She wanted to take a picture of the new family member to match a photo she has of his father in the same clothing. It seemed to me that this was as good a time as any to go through those cartons, give what was still useful to charity, and toss the rest. Not really an overwhelming job. After locating the requested garment, and throwing out a few obviously worn-out items in the process, I seemed to reach an impasse. The boxes cluttered the dining room, and I would make desultory attempts to finish the job, feeling exhausted after 15 minutes of sorting. I realized after a while that the task was emotionally, not physically, demanding, and that both dealing with memories (even happy ones) and needing to part with reminders of the past were difficult for me. I berated myself: “The attic is on overflow” “It’s only stuff” “You swore when cleaning out your parents’ house that you wouldn’t leave your own accumulation for others to deal with” “You’re just lazy!”
Then I mentioned all this to a friend. Her response was, “Isn’t it awful! I have all my kids’ clothes and toys and drawings. I just hate having to decide what to keep and what to toss. It totally wears me out.” And suddenly I felt normal again. I’m not the only one with this problem. Of course, there are people who easily divest themselves of the trappings of the past at each new stage of life, and I envy them. But at least I know that there are others like me, too. (Yikes! I haven’t even gotten to the toys and drawings and school pictures and ….).
Disposing of children’s paraphernalia is not a subject so sensitive that one would hesitate to bring it up casually with a friend. But we all have issues regarding our own personalities, quirks, needs, likes and dislikes that we hesitate to share even with those closest to us. It’s on these subjects that I realize I find books to be part of the “Self-Help” genre even when that was not the intent of the author.
In his post earlier this week, Jeff commented that writers are observers, but not necessarily great analysts. It’s exactly this skill of observing human behavior and describing both the behavior and the effect it has on the characters’ relationships that often makes the reader, or at least this reader, pause and realize that others deal with the same problems we face. Readers often discuss the importance of being able to identify with a character in order to become invested in a story. Part of the pleasure of this investment is in knowing that the author has observed that type of person, and if we are like that person, we are not so different from the rest of humanity. I find that I am sympathetic to characters who face issues similar to mine, even if their behaviors (and mine) are not particularly attractive. At least I’m not the only one to feel or behave that way.
The author may not be the analyst, but the self-aware reader might actually be influenced enough by the observation of the results of certain attitudes or behaviors in fictional situations to make some changes. Or not. At least it’s comforting to feel that if characters I read about have the same quirks or obsessions or anxieties, mine must not be too far out of the mainstream.
And now back to the thriller I’m reading. It fees good to know I’m not the only one who fantasizes about decapitating certain people with a machete.