by Matthew Sitman
Last night I asked readers what novels, poems, or stories have been their companions along life’s way – those texts you return to again and again, or that got you through a hard time, or helped you see life just a bit differently. The responses have been moving to read, and I was struck again and again by the beauty of what readers shared. I’m humbled and grateful. One reader wrote:
That line – “a flag planted in the dust: someone else has been here too” – immediately sent me back to one of my favorite books, Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net. As a 19 year old kid reading along with the funny, confident, and adrift narrator, I was completely enthralled. I was thinking a lot about independence in those days, and friendships and relationships. I was primed for anyone who had something to say about how to relate to other people.
And then I got to this passage, and even though it was ten years ago, I remember sitting in a park, reading these lines, and chills running all over my body:
“I hate solitude, but I’m afraid of intimacy. The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself which to turn into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction. The company which I need is the company which a pub or a cafe will provide. I have never wanted a communion of souls. It’s already hard enough to tell the truth to oneself.”
Another told this story:
This isn’t about a work of fiction, but it helped in a turbulent moment.
When I was an undergrad on 9/11/01 in New York City my Tuesday morning philosophy seminar started early. I was already at school when I learned of the plans attacking the World Trade Center. After contacting my friends who lived and worked downtown and making plans for them to meet me uptown to walk home across the 59th St bridge, I found myself wanting to pass the time in a more contemplative–if not relaxing–way than watching the news.
I decided to reread Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, a Stoic, philosophical treatise, written while the emperor was out on a wartime expeditions. I think Nietzsche once wrote that Stoicism is a philosophy for dire times, but times are never so dire to need Stoicism. But it seemed just right that morning.
The aphorisms certainly didn’t put me fully at ease, but Aurelius’s thoughts let me return to myself in a more composed manner. Struggling with death, with enemies, he was thinking not just about how to best understand injury and pain, but how to react to it. The opening book is dedicated to showing gratitude to his friends and family, something important when things are going terribly wrong.
But what struck me most at that moment as important and what has remained as prescient if unheeded, was his assertion that “The best way to avenge thyself is not to become like the enemy.”
A few readers noted short stories they loved. Here’s one:
A work of astonishing grace, “The Book of the Grotesque” is the most striking piece of writing I’ve ever encountered. In less than two dozen paragraphs Sherwood Anderson outlines a philosophy of belief systems, finds beauty in humanity, and paints curiously relatable portraits. So much of life in so few words. When I’m not admiring the elegance and truth within the work, I find myself relating to, amazed with, and humbled by Anderson himself. It is a poignant, self-critical short story that begs to be revisited often.
I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to respond to Matthew Sitman’s post on texts that his readers cherish and return to again and again. For me, the evanescent short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin, is that text. Aside from the lustrous prose, I find that its message of what we overlook when we contemplate with satisfaction our own lives, and the achievements of our society and country, is devastating, even in the remembering of the story, let alone in the moment of rereading.
Poetry, of course, was well-represented. A reader described Raymond Carver’s “Gravy” as “the poem that I come back to time and again”:
No other word will do. For that’s what it was.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.”
Another wrote, “You asked about words that we have carried through our lives. For me, it would have to be Whitman. He’s my go-to when life doesn’t make sense,” and went on to point to Whitman’s “Beginning My Studies”:
Beginning my studies, the first step pleased me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least animal or insect, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step awed me and pleased me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wished to go any further,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.
Keep the selections coming to firstname.lastname@example.org, I’d love to hear from more of you.