One of the difficulties with reading is that one must learn to inhabit a world in which something that pains you can also bring you great pleasure.
Isn’t that a great quote? It comes as the first sentence in the conclusion of Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex and the Novel Form by Claire Jarvis. The book turned out to be quite interesting though it is very much geared toward an academic audience rather than a general reader so I admit to my eyes glazing over once or twice. Okay three or four times.
Jarvis looked closely at Victorian literature, in particular Wuthering Heights, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy and modernist outlier D.H. Lawrence. She discovered that a good many of those long descriptive passages had quite a lot to say about sex. I found her perspective thought provoking and different from the run-of-the-mill lit crit. I wouldn’t recommend it for a casual read though and it would certainly be best if you are familiar with some of the works by the authors she discusses if not the couple of works by each she focuses on. That’s all the review I’ll give on it since I read it for review for Library Journal.
But back to the quote.
I think one of the best things about reading is the opportunity to inhabit those worlds, to be taken out of my world and made to see things differently even when, especially when, they make me uncomfortable. I will never claim it is easy but it is usually rewarding. I won’t condemn a book because I didn’t like any of the characters or thought they were reprehensible. Nor do I require books to have happy endings or be uplifting. Most of the time those sorts of stories are completely unrealistic and take some mighty wrangling to force them to be that way and I will condemn a book if the force of that wrangling goes too far. This does not mean I don’t enjoy a story where dastardly characters get their just desserts. I love a little poetic justice as much as the next person and good triumphing over evil can make me whoop with joy (Gandalf showing up just in time at Helm’s Deep with the Rohirrim—woo hoos and fist pumps all around!—gets me every time).
But unsettling books like Kang Han’s The Vegetarian or deeply uncomfortable ones like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, are necessary in helping me be a better person. Not only do they show me the world from a different point of view, but they also challenge my position in it. I didn’t feel like jumping with joy after either of those books. They both made me cry, made me feel uncomfortable, even guilty. But I am glad I read them because, as the quote suggests, at the same time they brought me pain there was also pleasure, which, given that the quote I began with is taken from a book called Exquisite Masochism, might make me seem like a masochist myself. While I do wonder sometimes whether readers have a bit of a masochistic streak in them, that’s not the kind of pain and pleasure I am talking about nor, I think, that the quote is referring to.
My words are failing me as I think about the pleasure part of the equation. There is certainly aesthetic pleasure but it is also more than that. There is an intellectual pleasure in the new and different, a pleasure in discovery. But there is an emotional component too—satisfaction?—that I can’t properly pin down.
At any rate, Jarvis’s sentence resonated with me. It is difficult to inhabit some worlds when reading. It is a challenge to remain open to the experience and it definitely doesn’t feel good when you/I realize I was wrong about something. However, I have found more often than not that the effort, the pain, the discomfort is more than worth it in the end because those are the books that end up being most memorable and meaningful.