Reader beware

Or why reading can be dangerous

A BLEND OF FACT AND FICTION Cal’s grandparents flee from Smyrna, boarding a passenger ship, as the city burns in flames in Jeffrey’s Pulitzer prize-winning book Middlesex

Can books do us any harm? 

Yes, for one, it’ll give you knowledge you could do without. Have you read Sybil, the 1973 account by Flora Rhetta Shreiber of the treatment of Sybil Dorsett (real name: Shirley Ardell Mason) for dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality disorder, by her psychoanalyst Cornelia B. Wilbur? 

It was true to life, though many claimed it was all fiction, accusing Wilbur of fraud and manipulating her patient or exaggerating the evidence for financial gain and self-promotion. Still, the book was sensational, categorized under nonfiction or biography and adapted into a 1976 TV movie starring Sally Field as Sybil and Joanne Woodward as the famous/infamous American psychiatrist. There was also a 2007 version starring Jessica Lange.

I read it as a child. More than her condition, what struck me as horrific was the childhood that led  Sybil there, all the cruelty and perversion she suffered at the hands of her schizophrenic mother Hattie (real name: Martha Alice “Mattie” Atkinson), whom neighbors in their Dodge Center, Minnesota community described as a witch. As a result, according to the controversial diagnosis of Dr. Wilbur, Sybil developed a total of 16 personalities, ranging from a grandmother, her own, who loved her dearly, to an infant, with two male selves thrown in, to each of whom, I surmise, she subconsciously entrusted her most brutal memories in a desperate attempt to keep them repressed from her one true self, that of Sybil.

These horrors used to entertain me, but only until I learned to love a child as my own, a niece of mine with whom I’ve become particularly close and with whom, in turn, I’ve learned to love all other children. Since then, I have not had the stomach to read anything that has any child suffering in it, though I did read Emma Donoghue’s Room in 2011 to the very end, but I guess only because it was cleverly and convincingly written from the point of view of a five-year-old who had his mother, if nothing and no one else, on his side.

PAINTING TRIGGER Key visual of The Goldfinch featuring the North American bird

A childhood spent in danger or sadness or fear or terror is, to me, a contradiction in terms. In my world (even now), childhood is a picture of mirth and innocence and hope (or faith) and love. Though my own childhood wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, I was at least safe and loved, cared for, provided for, and allowed to dream, surrounded by people who would not let me cross the street without holding my hand.

I was also allowed to read and to read anything, except the medical encyclopedia that my grandmother, at some point in my childhood, decided to take away from me when I began to imagine having all the symptoms I was reading about in their pages. And just in time, as I was beginning to immerse myself in the volumes that dealt with mental and psychological illnesses. 

THE INGENIOUS GENTLEMAN Illustration of Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote

Which brings me back to my question: Can books do us any harm?

Let’s not talk about the propaganda books, like all the history with which we were force-fed in grade school to make all things American some kind of a hero or a dream in our eyes. Let’s not talk about dogma or anachronistic law books or articles of faith that seem to keep us in the Dark Ages or put us in a cage or douse the fire that by nature rages in us.

Let’s talk about fiction. Let’s talk about the stuff we read for pleasure or leisure or to while away our time. What about Jeffrey Eugenides’s saga The Middlesex, the adventures of an intersex, born female due to a 5-alpha reductase deficiency and later, following a sex reassignment surgery, turned male? I don’t see how it could have harmed anyone, except it would have cost you 544 days of your life, if you could read no more than a page a day. I’m recommending it to my 15-year-old niece.

CASA BUENDIA Illustration of Gabriel García Márquez's 100 Years of Solitude (Selin Cinar)

Let’s talk about the 2013 number one international bestseller The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. It’s a wonderful book, more time-consuming at 962 pages on paperback, though this passage, on page 593, gave me such sickening sorrow: “Old age. Sickness. Death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people kept... breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more beings to suffer like this... dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game.”

Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labeled ‘This could change your life.’

—Helen Exley

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude had the same effect on me, which Pablo Neruda considers the greatest thing in Spanish since Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. It did, as the author intended it would because the ideal novel, as he put it, must “perturb not only because of its political and social content, but also because of its power of penetrating reality; and better yet, because of its capacity to turn reality upside down so we can see the other side of it.” 

REALITY IN FOUR CORNERS Emma Donoghue with her novel Room at the Royal Festival Hall in London, 2011 (Chris Helgren)

I had to read Andrew Matthews’s Being Happy after reading 100 Years of Solitude to detoxify my spirit, the way I turned to Rick Warren’s A Purpose-Driven Life once I was done with The Goldfinch, the same way I took a breather in Tom Hanks’ Uncommon Type as soon as I turned the page on Hanya Yanahigara’s A Little Life. At the moment, I am halfway through Milan Kundera’s The Joke, for which he was banned from publishing ever again in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, so I’m considering re-reading Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris once I’m done with it.

Did I answer my own question? Maybe books can be quite damaging, like life itself, but they do help you develop a kind of antidote to their own poisons. There’s critical thinking, for one. There’s perspective, too. At least I know a moment’s sadness in my life I can turn into a 1,000-page epic just as a little tenderness with a little effort and a lot of talent can turn into the Love Story of the Ages. Books that read like magic are like that—no more than little moments in our own lives, replete with a thousand possibilities, under a very powerful microscope.