Recalibration, or: Why Sometimes It’s Worth It to Read a Book That Wears You Down

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You know how you're supposed to keep your phone and/or computer alive by letting them/it run completely out of power? And then the device is supposed to come to a fuller understanding of its capacity (sort of); it recalibrates and once again knows the meaning of "empty" and "full" and "dying as you are trying to text your family."

Well, I have been slogging and slogging my way through the end of a book that I did not love at all, thinking (as I read): Why do I make myself read to the end? Even if it's for my book group, shouldn't I somehow give myself a pass? I have only so many hours on this earth… (etc etc).

And then I did finish it. And guess what? I was recalibrated! The next book I picked up (The Overstory, which I will blab on about in a while, I am sure) I met with unbridled joy! Never mind that I sometimes find Richard Powers compulsively cerebral. It was fun to read again! I plunged through pages, fast and happy. I was renewed!

Anyway, that's how I came to believe in recalibration for reading. And my extremely terrible illustration at the top (it's an empty gas tank of course!) is my newest attempt to avoid running afoul of various copyright issues and to be truer to what's in my head. Sorry that it looks like the Nightmare Before Christmas, we all have our troubles.

Half-baked ideas: A Meditation on Autism and a Little Bit on Children’s Books


(Image courtesy California Lightworks)

There are books—there is art of all kinds, really—in which it seems that the person creating does not see the limits the rest of us see. The writer will have the child party with the monsters or walk through the back of the metaphorical wardrobe or let the pigeon drive the bus. (Yeah, that's right, they're examples and metaphors, baby.)

For a long time, I have watched someone close to me move through the world bearing with her the clanky burden of her autism, at least that's how I have seen it. It's part of her, and it makes so many things more difficult. What for me is easy—trying on shoes in a store, making small talk with a neighbor (OK, that can be brutal but I can still do it), staying through to the end of dinner. When social cues, and rules, and reality don't register in your vision, it's like missing a spectrum of light: you bump into things you didn't even see were there.

But. Here is the thing. While missing that whole spectrum of light makes things like, say, trying on shoes in a store, difficult, that wavelength, those social constructs, those invisible ties that they rest of us can see and negotiate, are also boundaries. And we see them and instinctively avoid them, duck them, go around them—we don't press against them, because we can see something there.

So: I'm thinking that there is a reason that being on the autism spectrum is so often associated with people who have broken through artistic and scientific walls—because those social constructs the rest of us happily, freely negotiate are those barriers. Social constructs are the box in the "think outside the box." That Edison and Turing and Austen—all rumored to have autism, though who the hell knows—blew the world away is because of their autism, not in spite of it. That the ability to block out social expectations and constructs is a superpower of sorts, not only the clanking burden that it is in shoe stores and restaurants but a turbo-powered engine that can blast people through beyond what anyone expected or envisioned.

I have been thinking about this a long time; I read Neurotribes by Steven Silberman, which I highly recommend. I am thinking about it all still.

Half-baked riddle: Which Mythic Greek Figure Is Like Your Mother? Or Maybe Your Father?

Here's the thing(s): I know my children. Also, I have read a fair number of books. I am fond of matching books to people, in the hopes that the book will bring the person in question joy.

However, I long ago reached the point at which any book I recommended was rejected out of hand by my children. Of course.

The same is true, also of course, with any knowledge, information, or advice I might be trying to offer them. Anything from "Oh, I think that charger cord doesn't work" to "I think finding someone to help you with your organization skills might help." Rejected!

Granted: These are annoying things to hear. I know that. I annoy myself when I say them. And they are always, always either ignored or more actively contested. My response, even internally, is understanding and acceptance. Because it is my fate, I realize, to be ignored/defied/shrugged off.

Which is when I realized who else is like that. That's right, Cassandra, baby. Fated to see the future, and have no one ever believe her. Do you know what Cassandra sounds like? She sounds like someone's mother. 

Problems With This Theory:

  1. It is possible that book recommendations for my kids are not the exact same as the gift of true prophecy.
  2. As far as I know, my (and every other parent's that I know) inability to be believed does not (probably) result from denying Apollo the pleasure of sex.

However, it is really, really annoying to try to (subtly!) foist a book (or belief system) on my child, only to be denied and denied and denied, until some other person comes along and toss off "Hey, have you checked this out?" upon which my child falls upon it hungrily.

Petty? Of course. Childish? You betcha. Inevitable? Apparently. And all of it makes me thing that Aeschylus was for sure writing about either his parents, or being one. Of course he was! He knew! He wrote like someone who knew the feeling, did he not?

And the bitter irony here, of course, is that no one will believe this. 

Half-Baked Theories: The Fear of Turning the Page

So, I've written here before about Being Susceptible to Fiction, and I still think it's true (it's not so easy to disabuse me of my half-baked notions!) but what's hitting me about it lately is how it affects reading tastes.

For me, there are certain intense books where I have to put the book down, repeatedly, because I can't take it. And what I think is, that it's just too easy for it to seem real to me. So if everything signals to me that, say, a person is about to make the most terrible choice possible (oh fictional characters, why must you always develop the story?), I have to look away. And the beautiful thing about a book (unlike a movie, say), is that I can.

But…is everyone like this? Is it like being a super-taster except with your mind instead of your tongue? I kind of think so, based on exactly no evidence! This post is, perhaps, the very epitome of half-baked theories: Gee, it's true for me, let me make a semi-grand extrapolation based on it!

So now, I must ask you: true for you too? As a reader, do you fall for it too much? Do you need to put down the book when it gets to intense? Or do you fall on the other end of the spectrum: are you impervious to the foibles of the fictional? Except, if that is true, is that maybe why some people don't like to read?

Help, I need answers!

Food, Children’s Books, and Does Anyone Have Any Yellow Cake?

I'm trying to remember how I got here. Part of it was—sob!—no doubt due to the news that Mary Berry is following suit with Mel and Sue and The Great British Bake-Off is no more.

And then I was thinking about Adopted Jane, in which a 12-year-old orphan is asked to visit two different families over one summer, and then has to choose which one to stay with. And (it could have been just me) but a large part of the experience seemed to revolve around the different foods at each home. With the lonely widow, she had a yellow cake mixed up in a bowl! And a floating island! With the farm-friendly family, she had biscuits and fried chicken!

And then theres the sausages Lucy has with Mr. Tumnus, as part of the very lovely tea. Or the hamper full of food that the beavers pack. Or, dear god, the Turkish delight!

I guess it's not just children's books, I mean Hemingway and his onion sandwiches are very compelling. But I feel like there is a particular and special connection children's books have with food, and I am not sure why that is. It's not just the candy, right—not all Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Surely adults love food just as much. And yet…. For some reason right now it is making me both hungry and wistful.

Do you have a favorite children's book meal? I keep thinking of the box of chocolates in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the one that's tied up with the wide lavender ribbon. And if I could only taste that yellow cake, I feel sure I would know why Jane chose her.