What makes my favorite book my favorite book? (or the generously selfish act of reading)

Until recently, if you had asked me how I felt about post-apocalyptic fiction I would have answered something like “Meh. It’s not really my thing.” It’s fictional terrain I’ve never had any particular affinity for and I think I’ve carried around a vague feeling that it’s been done and over done until that ground has been plowed fallow.

When I started thinking about my favorite books I read in 2014, I was confronted with a surprising fact: four of my favorite seven books this year took place in a post-apocalyptic near-future. Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy and The Country of Ice Cream Star made my Top-5 list and the two that just missed the cut, The Book of Strange New Things and Station Eleven, all deal with how humans fare, adjust and build societies after the world we now live in has collapsed. Their power–Station Eleven‘s in particular–comes from what the speculative future world of the page tells us about the world we now live in.

Do I actually like post-apocalyptic fiction? Clearly I don’t dislike it.

* * *

I’m currently reading The Unspeakable, a collection of essays by Meghan Daum about sentimentality in American culture and the doubts she has about many of the things American society tells us we are supposed to feel (e.g., “I don’t love my parents as much as I should”; a married couple not wanting children is strange and selfish, etc.).

It’s a terrific read. Daum’s prose is witty, whip-smart and full of insight. Unfortunately, for a book supposedly about the “unspeakable”, I find it fairly edgeless. Daum, to her credit, explicitly points out that the essays are not meant to be confessional. She’s not “letting it all hang out”. She’s offering her feelings and experiences that run counter to the bromides and borrowed wisdom in our culture. And she does this very well. But I haven’t found anything she’s written particularly transgressive. Certainly nothing “unspeakable”.*

In his autobiographical novel, My Struggle: Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard offers up crystalline passages on the selfish emotions, petty resentments and wild self-delusions that most would never admit to a close friend, perhaps not even to a therapist. He laid out every mound and crevasse in his personal emotional terrain in a way that left me staggered. The sense of humanity and the feeling of identification was so acute that the recurring feeling I had when reading My Struggle: Book 1 can best be described as “I am a human being. He (Knausgard) is a human being. We are of the same species.”

* * *

When my reading leaves the solid comfort of the bound page, the confusion and conflict and disharmony of the day inevitably claw their way through the cool light of my laptop. The cycle is familiar: violence (physical, social, intellectual and/or implied) followed by a Reservoir Dogs-style finger-pointing standoff accompanied by incessantly inane (and inanely incessant) media commentary on what “it means.”

So much conflict comes down to competing interpretations of others’ actions. Motives are ascribed and states of minds are divined. Both parties somehow become victim and perpetrator, depending on which agenda-peddler you listen to. Objective truth is supplanted by opposing subjective [exaggerated air quotes] ‘truths’ composed of “a dark smudge of an idea shared among believers,” as it was beautifully expressed by John Darnielle in his spare and striking Wolf in White Van.

The futility of understanding the motivations of others was also gut-wrenchingly mined in Silence Once Begun, another of my 2014 favorites.

* * *

I’ve written before about the power of reading for developing empathy for those outside ourselves and our immediate ecosystem. Research shows a correlative effect between reading fiction and being empathetic.

I’d like to say that I read to help me better understand and empathize with others, but I don’t believe that’s true.

I’ve spent a lot of (gratuitous) time trying to find the emotional or intellectual through-line for the disparate collection of picks in The Wheelhouse, my recommendations section in Booksellers. I’ve been certain that psychographic mapping could uncover the common theme among the literary fiction, narrative non-fiction, sociology, graphic novel and history titles comprising my recommendations.

It may just be as simple as I read to help me better understand me.

I read to help me better understand the world and society in which I live and from there, hopefully, triangulate where I fit.

In the process of trying to better understand myself, I inhabit the worlds of heroes and villains across geographic and temporal boundaries. I learn about others not like me in any obvious way to find and find our commonalities. Where there’s no shared experiences, shared motives and fears and imperatives help me connect, make sense and understand.

Perhaps my favorite books are my favorite because they help me better understand myself and the world and, in doing so, they better connect me to you.

* I’ll allow that gender differences (or my particular emotional makeup) may blunt the landing of some of Daum’s essays.

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