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January 22, 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.

7 thoughts on “Escape the ego”

  1. Britt Gullick says:

    I think that I read to learn. The reason I want to learn through fiction and not non-fiction is that I want to really think about issues/events from an emotional perspective, thinking about what happened between the lines in the textbook. I think all the time that in times of war, or political upheaval, or natural disaster, that people still laugh, love, and move on with the trivialities of their lives. The Cellest of Sarajevo is a great example of this – a book you gave me, so hopefully you share my opinion! I like an imaginative perspective on what might have happened, in between the lines, while still learning more about something – anything! – that I might not normally consider. The same goes for the very few memoirs I have read – a good memoir is imaginative, poetic, and lets you in on lots of tiny secrets. There is a fine line between memory and imagination anyway – they both kind of come from the same place.

  2. patricia says:

    I read for many reasons; I couldn't pin it down to just one. I certainly read to escape, and whenever I read I hope to learn something, not necessarily just facts about the world, but some sometimes hopefully some little gem about life that broadens or bends my perspective. And then of course, there is reading for the pure love of language – reading a word, a sentence or paragraph over and over because the sound, the feel, the texture is just so delicious. Sort of like slowly sucking on a really good toffee to make it last longer.

    The other day I had a brief conversation with a young man who told me that he hated books, and never read them. He said this with such triumphant glee. I was so horrified, it was as if he'd told me that he enjoyed chewing raw human flesh.

    Regarding Elizabeth Gilbert, I'm one of those annoying people, too, who have have strong opinions without having read Eat Pray Love. I've read articles about her books, and that is enough for me to know that I'll never crack them open. That kind of writing gives me the shivers. Perhaps if I read stuff like that, I'd hate books, too.

    If given the chance, I'm sure Diana Athill would have some clever, wry comment to say about Eat, Pray, Love. I much prefer Ms. Athill's no-nonsense view of life (Though I balk at her views on fidelity in marriage). I have a sneaking suspicion that you will enjoy her memoirs, no matter what the reason you choose to read them.

  3. biblioasis says:

    I've only read STET, but it's a brilliant memoir, and one you would love.

  4. mynovelreviews says:

    This is a great post – I too, have formed opinions about Elizabeth Gilbert without reading her – I guess there are lots of people in that camp!

    I think that I read fiction to learn about other times, people, places and cultures and myself. Sure, there is an element of escape to it (I think that many things that are enjoyable have an element of escape) but the really good novels make you run right up against yourself and cause you to see yourseld and your world in a new light.

  5. Kerry says:

    For me, the big revelation was that perhaps "escape" is not the worst reason to read. That "escape" is way underrated.

  6. patricia says:

    Escaping is good, in my books. I think that's why I'm so perplexed when I meet people who don't read books. I cannot imagine living my life only on this one plane of existence. I suppose that it's probably what religious people think about me when I tell them that I don't believe in an afterlife.

    Another reason I read is that I'm just plain curious. I see a book and I can't help but wonder what's inside. The actual physicality of a book attracts and intrigues me; I'm compelled to open it up and take a peek inside. A kindle, for me, inspires no such curiosity or wonder.

  7. j says:

    I gave my wife "Eat, Pray, Love" to read and she said she liked it. Elizabeth Gilbert just came to Harvard Square to a packed church to speak about her new book "Committed." My wife and daughter attended. They said Ms. Gilbert recommended that writers spend their time getting things down on paper and refining it, and joining writer's groups for feedback, rather than spending their precious time and money in graduate writing programs, or worrying what other people think of their ideas, because it's the writers who are actually doing the work of writing, not their critics.

    Whether or not her writing is escapist, or if her opinions are an exacting theory of the power of fiction (or memoir), she has certainly given many people a lot of joy, a result of her finding her voice, expressing her honest opinions, and letting them fly.

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