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Good Letters

A therapist I once went to for help with insomnia advised me: “Stop reading a novel at bedtime; it stimulates the mind.”

When I recounted this to my wise sister who knows me well, she protested: “No! A novel takes you out of yourself; that’s just what you want before trying to go to sleep.”

My sister had it right. I dropped that therapist (saving, by the way, hundreds of dollars) and picked up my bedtime novel. Like poet Garret Keizer in “If I Knew What Pain” (Image #52), I resumed

permitting myself to sink
into the world of this fat, yeasty novel
as into the folds of a warm feather bed—

Of course my bedtime novel can’t be just any fat yeasty one. I’m very particular about what I take into bed with me. Violence, whether physical or psychological, will not let me sleep. Sentimentality won’t keep my interest enough to take me out of myself. Mystery is too tense, science fiction too weird.

So, what am I left with? Lots and lots of novels, fortunately.

Take Jo Baker’s 2013 novel Longbourn—her imagining of the lives of the servants in the Bennet household of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Baker creates lives that she makes me care about, and writes incidents that are engaging, moving, and just suspenseful enough to keep me on the edge of my seat (no, I guess it would be the edge of my propped up pillow) without keeping me awake. And then there’s the treat of watching the drama of Pride and Prejudice through the eyes of the Bennets’ servants.

Tara Conklin’s 2013 novel The House Girl worked for me the same way. I really cared about the two women whose lives Conklin cleverly interweaves: the slave Josephine living in 1852 Virginia and the contemporary young lawyer Lena. Their drama stimulated my interest just enough to take me far from myself without landing me in a tense sleep-preventing ditch.

The Help, Kathryn Stocktett’s 2011 novel, also drew me into the drama of race relations, this time in the Mississippi of 1962. I seem to be attracted by historical fiction: its underlay of reality grounding the characters’ stories. All three of the books I’ve mentioned so far have a dimension of historical fiction.

But fanciful fun is fine too. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson (2010), had me smiling as I’d lean back into my pillow, delighted by the Major’s quirks. Surely happiness is a good way to go to sleep.

When I run out of contemporary bedtime novels, I know I can always return (for the umpteenth time) to Jane Austen’s Emma or Persuasion. Or to that fattest of yeasty novels, Vikram Seth’s 1500-page A Suitable Boy.

The paradox of good fiction, I’d say, is that while it takes us out of ourselves it also shows us ourselves in a new light. A larger light. An immense floodlight that illumines all of humankind: all our muddles, our mishaps, our false steps and our true ones.

Greg Wolfe elaborated this point in his post about Richard Rodriguez’s book Brown. He quotes Brown on literature’s abhorrence of generalities:

Literature flows to the particular, the mundane, the greasiness of paper, the taste of warm beer, the smell of onion or quince. Auden has a line: “Ports have names they call the sea.” Just so will literature describe life familiarly, regionally, in terms life is accustomed to use—high or low matters not. Literature cannot by this impulse betray the grandeur of its subject—there is only one subject: What it feels like to be alive. Nothing is irrelevant. Nothing is typical.

“What it feels like to be alive.” That’s the affirmation I need at bedtime. (At any time, really.) At night, when I close my novel before turning out the light, I often say to myself: “yes, these other lives…they are everyone’s…they are mine. This is life.”

So I like the metaphor with which Greg follows up this quote from Rodriguez: “Literature holds up a mirror to the complex, messy world we live in, reminding us with devices like ambiguity, paradox, and irony, just how ambiguous, paradoxical, and ironic life can be.”

That mirror. Yes. What a delightful paradox that the novels that take me out of myself are at the same time showing me a mirror of myself. And not just myself: the entire “complex, messy world” I live in.

Maybe what I seek at bedtime—and what I find in fine novels—is not so much to be taken out of myself as being placed in the larger world.

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Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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