Recently my Grandmother, whom I’m staying with at the moment, showed me a page in the newspaper of a tall statue version of an iconic photo, a sailor coming home and tipping his girlfriend/wife back and kissing her passionately. It reminded me strongly of several years when I studied that period of history fervently via books and film.
Some journeys must be taken alone. Like visiting rest stations, you may check in with others in your life, but the journey in the mind and heart happen internally, in solitude. Reading for me has been one of these journeys. If you could look over the books of my life, you could watch my demons being exercised, destroyed or created through the titles in each period of my life.
When I was eleven years old, I started reading works on World War II. The lives of the men and women who lived and died during that time had a profound impact me. I remember an afternoon where I stared into the mirror and swore that I wouldn’t flinch or hide from the horror of the world. I was going to accept it, understand it and resist it. I was not going to pretend it didn’t exist. For a time, the larger than life horror of London bombings and concentration camps filled my reading hours. I was rather somber during those years. I read Tolstoy and C.S. Lewis. My father watched Deer Hunter and Saving Private Ryan with me late at night, films not even my mother would watch with us.
You can only drink from such a brew so long.
I will never understand what people do to each other. I have been an active and conscious student of the human condition for almost two decades. I still do not understand my own species.
When reading fiction, I can pretend for a moment there is rhythm and reason. Only on the hawks eye few of history does humanity make sense, on the Jarred Diamond level of reading, where you can watch the flow of migrations and the development of writing.
The momentary instantaneous reactions of one human to other human appear to be triggered by chaos.
I’ve searched the writings of my fellow beings for answers.
What’s known can’t be unknown. Unless you find what you know is a lie.
And then you stare into the abyss of knowledge and watch it turn into a spinning black whole of horror, and impenetrable morass of danger where there is no right or wrong, no judgment that is final, no boundary that will garner you respect when you keep it.
And then you find that freedom is not Narnia and talking animals and dancing dryads but a shriek in the night and tears in the dark.
And you wish you were child.
And you hate those who lied to you.
And then that black whole collapses and you find yourself staring into a fractured world of multiple right and wrongs, of multiple boundaries and multiples goods and evils, all encased in fat lines of gray.
You’re dancing in a patchwork sky of religious and philosophies and stories and histories where everything is a matter of perspective punctuated by the clamor of those who know for certain they are right. Below their screams floats a see of hypocrisy lying right below the surface.
You despair of trust.
Until you realized all these people are only as human as you, as frightened, needy, as terrified as you, searching for an anchor in a world that has become so self aware that it can stare into the dark and come to the conclusion that it is alone in the universe.
Some journeys must be walked alone.
Most journeys have been taken before.
And yet still, these journeys are walked alone, again and again.
Or possibly it is only the veneer of walking alone that exists once you open the writings of anyone.
When you cannot open your mouth to ask the questions that haunt you and books are your only confidents, you are both alone and not alone.
Many of us are not so honest about what sort of journey we’re on. In Japan, when you buy books at the large Kinokuniya chain, they offer you paper jackets, to hide the covers of your books. People use them, frequently, from the cheap paper slip-ons handed out for free at the check out counters to beautiful and expensive silk works of arts these covers hide anonymous books, parading around in public. You’d don’t know unless you manage too look around the edge into the pages what the person in front of you is experiencing.
The Kindles, Nooks, Kobo Sapphires and other devices with reading apps are doing the same as this flimsy paper covers. Hiding our journeys, sheltering us until we’re willing to own these fragile pilgrimages, which for some of us will be never.
In a way, I hope this easy secrecy will lead to less secrets in the future, less shame. Eventually, we’re all going to wise up to the fact that a lot of us must be reading the same things.
These intensely personal journeys are so many parallel roads. But they must be walked alone, with our written companions, those echoes of lives lived before.
Not so mute companions though. No so harmless. Because these companions of ours, these souls confined to un-breathing pages and electronic bytes are still the echoes of others of lives actually lived and thoughts actually formed.
They can still haunt us like a breathing being. Because they are reflections, human reflections.
We say books haunts us, but we choose to take them with us, closer even than our closets friends. We use them to take perilous journeys, to explore ourselves, to seek answers to questions we can’t even voice.
We might forget sometimes, that there are pieces of the soul of someone in every piece of work, in every tale, in every explanation.
We only think we’re traveling alone.
We only think we’re safe, sitting in the corner of the room with our respectable hardcover or reader.
In reality, every time we crack open a library, men and women from a thousand walks of life and a thousand viewpoints and philosophies are clambering to be let into our minds, our solitary journeys and possibly our hearts.
For better or worse.