How does reading fiction change you?

Reading changes me. From the moment I start a new book until the moment I finish the last word, I feel like I’ve been on a trip. What I take away after the book is finished depends partly on what I brought with me before I started and partly what I learned along the way. Let me say that another way, when I delve deeply into a world I already know, I’m more likely to focus on nuances, when I’m looking into a world I’ve never seen before, I suspect I’m like a kid in a toy store who stares at the brightest and shiniest thing. And then there’s the entire spectrum in between being an expert and a novice. Still, when I close the book, I see people, places, and even my own self with new eyes.

People.

When I read a phrase the describes something I’ve seen a million times and does so in a fresh way, I’m a bit awe struck. It’s like a little bit of poetry snuck into prose. The best writers do it all the time. We know exactly what they’re talking about, and yet they show us the extraordinary in the everyday. The wonderful shift for me as a reader is that my appreciation shifts. The same old same old isn’t ever quite the same.

I spent a year studying in what was Leningrad when I arrived and St. Petersburg when I left. It’s not surprising that I love Martin Cruz Smith. In Stalin’s Ghost, there’s a line where Smith describes a “stout woman in a Metro uniform, [who] made sure he didn’t spill a drop on her platform.” Anyone who lived in the Soviet Union in the last decades of its existence could not escape knowing the stout women who enforced the rules (mine, at the Hermitage, made sure we were quiet and kept booties on over our shoes). When I read this line in Stalin’s Ghost, I knew this woman, but for the first time, I saw a different part of her. She was someone who felt personally responsible for her bit of orderliness, just like my enforcers did at the Hermitage.

Places.

Setting can be as expansiveness as Wyoming in Lee Child’s The Midnight Line  or as claustrophobic as the windowless document review rooms for high-powered law firms in Grisham’s The Associate. Whether it is topography or architecture, I think the most enchanting writers engage both the native and the traveler, which is not an easy thing: to engage readers who know everything about a place while not leaving behind those readers who are entirely unfamiliar with the setting.

I don’t know Wyoming well. I’ve driven from Utah to Nebraska and Yellowstone on more than one occasion, so the topography isn’t completely foreign, but it’s far from familiar. Lee’s descriptions transported me to those wide open spaces and made me more aware of how different they are from my current habitat in Manhattan. Lee, like Smith and Grisham, introduces his readers to sights, smells, and sensations in a new world without us even noticing that’s what he’s doing, until we notice some of those same little things in our own surroundings.

Sense of Self

There’s a line in Device and Desires, where P.D. James writes, “Dalgliesh reflected that success, although admittedly more agreeable than failure, has its own concomitant disadvantages.” That is a beautiful sentence. On one level, it has a very Buddhist non-attachment flavor to it. On another level, James is simply describing how her protagonist, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, thinks. In this casual, almost after-thought way, James allows us, as readers, to wonder about how we engage with success and failure. She’s not lecturing, but she certainly is offering the opportunity to learn.

That line stuck with me because I grew up believing there was a clear distinction between success and failure. I knew which I wanted. As the years have gone by, though, like Dalgliesh, I have come to understand that while success may be immediately more agreeable, there are distinct advantages to what some may call failure. In fact, I might go so far as to say that it’s not so clear to me, in the long run, that the two are clearly distinguishable.

I could go on. I’m a bit of a word nerd, after all. But, I won’t. I would very much like to hear what you have read that altered your way of experiencing the world? How did it change you? Why do you think it had the impact it did?

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