Books and Life: Difference is Good

Guest Blogger Christina Carson, author of Dying to Know and Suffer the Little Children, muses about great books, why they make a difference, and what makes them live forever in our lives.

Stephen Woodfin’s recent blog, “Five Books You Think Everyone Should Read,” started me musing, as it did a few others, judging from the comments that followed. Books aren’t like acquaintances; they are life experiences that we carry with us to the end. And when you think of it, that description could be used as a measure for writers as to how proficient their work is, for it pins the upper end of fine writing rather clearly: Will someone in their ends years still be extoling your books?

Christina Carson

Like the fashion world, styles of sought-after writing change with the years, but those who gave us their all, while they lived and wrote, stay in style seemingly indefinitely. Why?

First, they exhibit the technical finesse to get the words on the page in a manner that pulls us into the world as they experience it. But here’s the distinguishing difference.

That experience is not seen through the eyes of their namesake, but rather from a different vantage point, one that requires them to dispense with their outer sense of themselves, their namesake, and record instead what they sense deep within them about the story they want to tell.

This takes a certain sort of courage that not everyone is willing to entertain. It is often described as going deeply within and in a sense it is, but a more telling description of what happens that results in the books that remain forever in our hearts is this.

The artists are willing to disappear, meaning to drop their personal beliefs, values, opinions, expectations, the very things that hold their personal namesake world together, which then makes it possible for the creative element in them to emerge and write on a clean slate—to create, not gossip or rehash.

Not long ago, Bert, our friend Adrienne, and I went to see the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, drawn to it by its extraordinary cast. The story, a simple one, is that of a young East Indian, Sonny, (Dev Patel) who dreams of restoring his father’s old hotel to one that would serve the needs of those in the difficult position of finding themselves without enough money to live out their latter years.

They can ‘outsource’ their retirement to the exotic, inexpensive land of India through residence at The Marigold. Judy Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, and Tom Wilkinson, to mention the most prominent, play the characters who find themselves in this predicament.

Superb is the only word that came to mind as I watched these four masters of the trade play out their roles. They are so the people they are playing that you begin to wonder if this is a documentary rather than fiction.

That is what it looks and feels like to the viewer, when the artist, in this case, actor, disappears – no part of his opinions or values carried into the role, a veritable tabla rasa, upon which the creation plays out.

The mystery of it all is that we, each of us as our namesake, are actually a work of fiction. Though we relate to ourselves as a unique and existent person, in truth who we think we are is really merely a compilation of beliefs, values, assumptions, expectations, conclusions and opinions. They are all mental functions, and the we that bears our name results from their collection and its maintenance. Honest.

It is held together by a high level of self-absorption, an enormous number of habits, and that fact that there are almost no models to the contrary. This, then, explains the inestimable value of the Arts, for they are one of the more powerful tools for opening the door between us and capital “R” reality – the one outside our heads. The recompense to the artist, be they writer, musician, actor or  whatever, is that they are offered moments spent “selfless,” a state so uncommon yet compelling, that our attempts to describe it result merely in words; ones like Peace, Love, Freedom, Beauty, Heaven.

Those moments give us a fleeting taste of the vastness we are and its interconnection with everything. And the marvel of it all is that when we touch those moments, we embed the sense of that experience into our work, so that every time someone reads it, they too sense what we sensed. Those works then becomes one of the five books we will list when asked a question like Stephen Woodfin asked: What are five books you think everyone should read? Or said another way: What are the five books that let you sense the limitlessness of your true nature, or as Sufi mystic Rumi says—where you dove in the ocean and let the sea be you.

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