I become so affected by the literature I read. I get a gut-wrenching emotional reaction to some books such that I become almost physically ill while reading them -- that's why I possess no Stephen King or other horror literature (besides Poe). Two books have caused me special grief: George Eliot's Mill on the Floss and William Golding's Lord of the Flies.
I was reading Eliot's story of Maggie, a wonderful character, while vacationing in Hawaii. My parents took Keith and me to Waikiki with them to celebrate our fifth anniversary. It was the summer between my first and second years of graduate school, and as I hadn't read anything by George Eliot, it seemed like a good time to fill in that gap. (Little did I know I would be subjected to Middlemarch the next year, nicknamed by my class as Middlecrawl.) Anyway, I was reading along, enjoying the book and sympathizing with Maggie all the way. Finally, love seemed just around the corner for her as I came to the final pages. And then George Eliot wrote the unthinkable: on the second-to-the-last page, she KILLED OFF Maggie -- MY character drowns in a flood, of all things. In hysteric tears at 3 AM, I threw the book across the room where it collided with the closet door and slumped to the floor, waking my husband as I dissolved into tears of anger. "How could she?!" I cried into his shoulder. "How could Eliot kill off Maggie like that?!" My husband forbade all but the tamest mysteries for the rest of the trip.
Then there's the kicker. I read Lord of the Flies once in high school, and I was sure that was enough. I hated the book, and my high school English teacher pulled a few stunts that made me remember the book in all its ugly "glory" for years afterward. Then, horror of horrors, it was assigned again in my college English novel course. I remember sobbing as I read it, hating every word that slid beneath my eyes. When I finished the horrid thing, I tore the paperback in half and the next afternoon I handed the two halves to Dr. De Saegher, declaring, "I will never, ever, ever, EVER read this book AGAIN."
Famous last words.
Fast forward twenty years. Last fall, I received the reading list for the Slingshot, the high school English subscription I write for Brave Writer. Each issue contains dictation passages from a short story or occasional novel (two novels per year), plus a poetry section and a writing idea. Imagine my shock in seeing Lord of the Flies slated for April. I wrote the owner, Julie, mock-complaining about having to teach that terrible book, and she offered to do it if I really couldn't handle it. I assured her that I could manage, and the school year proceeded as usual.
Until this week, that is. On Tuesday I checked out a copy of the book and started reading it. By the third and fourth pages, I was beginning to feel queasy. I felt increasingly more sick at heart with each page I turned. Before I reached the end of the first chapter, I had slammed the book shut, in tears. WHY? Because I have three boys in the age bracket of the boys in the novel? Partly. Because I have a faint remembrance of the awful things that will happen in this book? Partly. Because I hate what this book says? Mostly.
I e-mailed Julie, again in tears, asking if her husband could possibly write the novel portion of the Slingshot as the deadline was two weeks away. She replied that she didn't have time (which I knew -- writing a Master's thesis is hard work!) and that her husband didn't know the format. Could I please write the subscription without rereading the book? She was very understanding about literature putting those of us who love and study it in knots. Meanwhile, I was feeling guilty for backing out of my assignment, something I just never do.
So I'll try to do this. I will try to write and teach on a book I despise without rereading it, without making myself ill over it, without revealing to the subscribers how I really feel. It definitely won't be my best work, but it will have to do. I just hate how much I get involved in the world of literature. It makes me appreciate Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series even more than I usually do; in his books, the literature is REALLY REAL.
Which makes a load of sense to me.