Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Thrill of Reality

Oscar Wilde famously said, "Life imitates art."  As apt as this aphorism may be, there are still others who put a premium instead on reality as a vehicle for artistic expression.  So, conversely, Kierkegaard said, "Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced."

To that end, I have been reading a lot of non-fiction. Histories, memoirs, autobiographies, textbooks, etc.  I just finished The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larsen, and am moving next to My Lucky Life, Dick Van Dyke's autobiography.  I also have, on my shelf at the moment, a history of coffee, a biography of Nikolai Tesla, a basic history of Islam, and a book about sex, written by women for women in the candid style which so many of us appreciate.  There is something about non-fiction which I find compelling.

It may be that I simply need a change of pace.  When I was in high school, I wanted to be a teacher.  An English teacher, to be precise.  I read everything I could get my hands on (and then some) and never picked up non-fiction unless required to by a teacher.  Non-fiction just did not have the pull that fiction did then, when most of it was about experiences felt deeply by the characters and exposed their passions and most secret feelings.  I was a girl who felt deeply, and thus my reading material should reflect that, I reasoned.  Or maybe reason got left out of it and I just intuitively picked things that suited my needs at the time.  I read a lot of classics (think Austen) and genuinely enjoyed my English homework.  I began actually writing, and thought seriously about a career in such a mode.  The most exciting thing about the end of the school year was the summer reading list.  Even if I didn't enjoy the novels on the list, I enjoyed having a list off of which to pick my reading materials.  I made my own lists and tried to read things considered required reading for college and a well-rounded education.  Little did I realize I was leaving out a major segment of thought.

Then I became a history major.  I know this is a common theme in my writings, but being a history major changed my whole life and my perceptions of the world.  In this particular case, it opened me up to the world of non-fiction.  Soon, the novels in my English classes failed to grab me in the way they had when I was in high school.  It was a chore to read most of the novels for those classes, and I would pine for my history reading.  One possible explanation was that the history reading was simply more interesting at the time and that my teachers picked novels I didn't enjoy (I will never read another D.H. Lawrence novel for as long as I live if I can help it.  I detest the man and his repetitive, overblown writing style).  Another is that I just needed reality to help me escape from my own reality, instead of an imagined world instead.

And here I am, six months after graduating from college, and I've only read a few novels.  In fact, most of the novels I've enjoyed the most are for kids.  I have never been able to free myself from the lure of late elementary school, early middle school novels.  I always return to them.  Instead, I'm reading non-fiction, delving into other people's lives and learning new (and occasionally useful) information.  The drive to fill the void of the intellectual calisthenics of college is apparently having quite a strong effect on me.  I am gathering the proverbial rosebuds, but instead of novels, this time, I'm gathering pieces of information and stringing them together to make a beautiful and eclectic necklace.  And I don't really care that at this point it's only for decoration.

I still pick up novels.  I'm still looking for something that will hook me in completely and irresistibly.  There is nothing quite like a novel that sucks you in and keeps you reading until it's finished.  I miss the thrill of picking up a book and not putting it down until I've finished it.  And so I pick up novels.  I search for that feeling, and usually end up discarding them after only a few chapters.  It's like first love.  You have to feel that spark and electricity, or else the pursuit loses its charm and magnetism.  And I drop it.  Quickly.

Until the time when I can again find the inescapable fixation of a truly great novel, I will continue to read my non-fiction.  And thoroughly enjoy a different take on the same reality.  In that way, non-fiction is just as legitimate an art form as fiction, because isn't the point of fiction to present a fresh perspective and to challenge our entrenched notions of ourselves and the world around us?  In this case, non-fiction is up to the task.  I read it with gusto.

Monday, October 3, 2011

On the Perfection of Being

Let's start with a wise piece of advice bandied about by those burnt by love:  "There is no such thing as a perfect man."

This statement may be true (especially when one considers the relative nature of perspective, truth, and good/evil), but is there such a thing as "perfect for me"?  I often will refer to my boyfriend not as "perfect" (because no one is) but "perfect for me" because he satisfies me even in ways I had yet to think of when we first met.  Is this cheesy and overblown?  Probably.  But does it make me feel contented?  Yes.  I guess what I am saying is that there is a person (or maybe even more than one) who is right.  In my mind, right is equated with perfect, for better or worse.  I know I should eschew such unrealistic adjectives, but sometimes it seems unavoidable.  I don't want to say that my boyfriend is great.  That doesn't convey the passion of my feelings.  I want to say he is exceptional.

Here's another question: is love using highfaluting descriptors without fear of retribution or derision?  Or is it simply that you no longer mind the caustic displays that come from acquaintances disenchanted with love in general?

Recently, I had a friend ask me a series of bald questions about my plans for the future and my intentions with my boyfriend.  She asked everything from "how can you be happy with one person for forever" to "what about divorce".  I had an answer for everything, mostly because I've been thinking about it in depth, but to me it revealed more about her than about me.  It spoke to me of her history with love and relationships and her personal attitude.  You could describe her as a realist and me as an idealist, or her as pragmatic and me as unreasonable.  I prefer to describe myself as optimistic or trusting.  Or, better yet, flexible.  I am willing to bend and to compromise in order to keep my love intact.  I know I am not going to be the same person now as when I'm 50 (how could I be?  So much experience will happen between now and then), but who is to say that the change won't be rewarding and will make our love richer?  Who is to say that it is actually our attitudes towards that change which determine how they will affect our relationship?  Perhaps it is that can-do attitude that saves loves like mine and the lack thereof that dooms others to failure.  Maybe I am being presumptuous, not actually being married yet, but I feel strongly about my convictions and trust them to see me through years of storms.

No one can really say what lies ahead, and while I for one am glad of that, I still think there are ways to gauge how you will respond to the situations that could arise.  As a historian, I look to the past to see how things may proceed in the future.  Patterns occur and point in the direction of the future.  How you have responded to things up to this point are a pretty strong indicator of how you will respond to things later.  So maybe it's time to stop the attempts at augury and time to focus instead on the behaviors of the present.

So I will leave you with another wise old platitude:  "Gather ye rosebuds."

Beat that with a stick.