Our theme for the month of June is “Top Ten.”

For much of my life, I have been a painfully slow reader. I plod methodically page by ink-riddled page, zeroing in on each word more than zipping through sentences. Reading has often been a labor of love for me, but a labor nonetheless. The love comes with underlining gorgeous phrases and penning notes in the margins. I will admit that sometimes I indulge in scrawling marginalia just for the romanticism of it. It’s like Ivy League cosplay.

However, this methodical approach to reading means that I press my mind so firmly to the letters of an intense passage that it is forever branded in my brain. And as I grow to face increasingly new and challenging choices and obstacles, these literary lessons continue to inspire and instruct:

In your place, if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is not better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything–what a waste! (Sami Perlman in Call Me By Your Name)

If you saw the 2017 film adaptation of Call Me By Your Name, you will remember this monologue delivered by Elio’s father to his heartbroken son. In the three years since I first read this passage, it has made me grateful for (though not desirous of) many sadnesses. It has reminded me that so many things in life can and should be worked toward but will ultimately arrive only in their own time. We must accept that sometimes life cannot be lived any faster and healing dictates its own pace.

Denton walked him back slowly, talking to him quietly all the way. Cassidy, still deep in his anguish, said nothing. Denton fed him from the blender, let him drink all the liquids he wanted, then gently put him to bed.

“Quenton, you—”

“I know,” Cassidy said. His eyes were still moist; he turned away. “But it is a very hard thing to have to know.” (Bruce Denton and Quenton Cassidy in Once a Runner)

The chapter titled The Interval Workout is the defining point of transformation in the most iconic running novel of all time. The book centers on the sacrifices that must be made for excellence, and Quenton Cassidy has slashed everything from his life to narrow it to the pursuit of this elusive excellence on the track.

In this chapter, his friend-turned-coach, Bruce Denton, has him run an interval workout of sixty repetitions of 400 meters. (I have run six marathons, and just last week a sixteen by 400 meter workout wore me out.) It is an unthinkable workout. Yet, Denton insists that Cassidy must complete it to truly, intimately know his potential.

I sometimes worry that I will never truly know my potential in anything. I divide my time between so many interests that I wonder if I’m cheating myself or my communities. How many novels are unwritten, records unbroken, conversations unspoken?

In this chapter, Quenton Cassidy experiences the agony of fulfilling his potential. The workout imparts to him a knowledge almost as forbidden as Adam and Eve’s. After reading his anguish, though, I wonder if maximizing and fulfilling potential is really the best way to spend a life.

You mustn’t get so upset about what you feel, Spud. No one’s a hundred per cent consistent all the time. We might like to be. We can plan our lives along certain lines. But you know, there’s no future in screwing down all the pressure valves and smashing in the gauge. You can do it for a bit and then something goes. Sometimes it gets so that the only thing is just to say, “That’s what I’d like to feel twenty-four hours a day: but, the hell with it, this is how I feel now.” (Ralph Lanyon in The Charioteer)

I was likely gliding through the rye and barley fields of Brandenburg, Germany when I first read this passage. I had just run the Berlin Marathon, just entered the final year of my twenties, and just left Seattle after a particularly disorienting summer. 

Meanwhile, Laurie “Spud” Odell was recovering in the British countryside from a leg injury he sustained during the Battle of Dunkirk. Laurie spent his days wrestling with himself—straining his shattered knee into fluid strides and restraining the romantic impulses that tore him between the affections of an innocent orderly, Andrew Raynes, and the advances of a jaded ship captain, Ralph Lanyon. And so, Laurie wrestled—with what it means to be a soldier who cannot fight, with what it means to be a man who loves men, with which man to love—until the pursuit of certainty proves too exhausting.

It is then that Ralph reminds him that none of us are pure of character or single in mind. And there are too many enemies to wrestle with in this life for us to waste our energy pinning ourselves down. In my zooming Deutsche Bahn train car, I felt a weight retreat from my chest.

“I didn’t think you were like that,” said Schilling slowly. “I am sorry for you. There is nothing wrong with seeing a person like Ronald Shaw, there is nothing so wrong with being that way, but to be a kept boy, ah, that is bad.” (Otto Schilling in The City and the Pillar)

The City and the Pillar was one of the first novels I read after moving to Seattle. For the first time in my life, I was creating a home thousands of miles from my first one. For the first time in my life, I was making my own dinner every night and finding my own auto shop and mapping my own way through the grocery store. 

At the same time, Jim was striking out from his idyllic American home in Virginia to swab the decks of Pacific ships and teach tennis at a Los Angeles hotel in pursuit of his high school sweetheart, Bob. 

During this pursuit, Jim was drawn into the orbit of Hollywood heartthrob Ronald Shaw, who offered him a position as his private tennis instructor. The position paid in room and board—Shaw’s room, to be specific.

When Jim went to tell his gruff, Slavic boss at the hotel that he would be absconding to Mr. Shaw’s swanky estate, Otto Schilling’s response was startling. Jim repeatedly draws contrasts between himself—honorable and athletic—and the gossipy, limp-wristed gays of LA, so it seems at first that Schilling is about to go full homophobe upon discovering Jim’s sexuality.

Instead, Jim and the reader are surprised when halfway through his response, Schilling clarifies that he takes umbridge not with Jim’s sexuality but with his subservience, with his becoming a glorified pool boy and plaything for the rich and famous. In a time when being gay relegated you to the lowest rung of society, Otto Schilling insisted that there are noble and innoble ways to live your life, regardless of your lot in life.

I have not forgotten that single word: “kept.” I want to learn from and depend on others, but I will refuse to be kept. I will not allow someone else to define the terms of my life, and I will continue to devise my own route through the grocery store.

Never trust a woman who wears mauve, whatever her age may be, or a woman over thirty-five who is fond of pink ribbons. It always means that they have a history. (Lord Henry, The Picture of Dorian Gray)

I’m sure that there are other lessons I was meant to learn from a brooding novel about a man who trades his soul for eternal beauty, but all I know is that I’ve grown increasingly suspicious of Queen Elizabeth II.

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it. (The Grapes of Wrath)

During this time of heightened awareness of systematic oppression, I’m reminded of John Steinbeck’s timeless depiction of “the monster.” Angry farmers whose land is being taken from them during the Great Depression want to know who to fight, who to hold accountable, who to hate only to learn that the enemy is not a man but an entire monstrous system.

In this moment, right before our eyes, I believe that an unprecedented number of people are recognizing that we may not be the monster, but we feed it, and we must work together to lay siege to the beast.

[W]hat I need to survive is not Gale’s fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that. (Katniss Everdeen in Mockingjay)

Anyone who tells me that The Hunger Games series is just another YA sci-fi romp will quickly find themselves on the receiving end of a literary argument so blistering they’ll think they were just stung by a swarm of tracker jackers. The truth is that the series addresses many of the same themes as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath but perfectly packages these tensions for a twenty-first-century attention span, smashing its prose into sentence fragments that acutely capture life in the arena.

In this passage, though, Katniss resolves a thoroughly YA trope: the love triangle. And she resolves it not based on desire or affection but on survival. She can pin as many dandelions on the passage as she wants, but she is still describing a necessary transaction more than a grand romance.

I still aspire to grand romance. However, this passage reminds me that the circumstances of our lives often makes choices for us, that our needs are more important than our wants, and that sometimes we must simply do the best with what we are given.

People don’t make good Anchors, though, Craig. They change. The people here are going to change. The patients are going to leave. You can’t rely on them. (Dr. Minerva in It’s Kind of a Funny Story)

Teenager Craig Gilner finds himself checked in for a week-long stay in a psychiatric ward after seeking help after contemplating suicide. While there, his psychiatrist, Dr. Minerva, asks him to think about what things in his life can anchor him when he feels tossed about by anxiety and depression. When he selects his love interest in the ward, Dr. Minerva drops an important piece of advice: “People don’t make good Anchors.”

This is not to say that we should not exercise vulnerability with others, that we should not depend on others, that we should not invest in others; rather, it means that we cannot expect others to be constants. To do so would be to deny them one of the greatest things we wish for ourselves: the capacity for change.

Instead, we must supplement the people in our lives with personal passions that nurture and sustain us. For Craig it is drawing. For me it is writing or re-watching episodes of 30 Rock. For others it may be birdwatching or flipping through old photo albums or repotting and watering the plants on the windowsill.

I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep. (Jim Burden in My Ántonia)

Willa Cather’s prose often left me breathless in My Ántonia, but never more than in this passage. Personally, I love the heat of the stagelight and the top of the podium, but never am I happier than when I’m tucked in a pack running among teammates or cocooned in sleeping bags in a tent among friends. It is at these times that I feel a warm, churning sensation that must be akin to photosynthesis.

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. (Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets)

Italian literary critic Umberto Eco once said, “Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us.” It’s no surprise then that this tender cliché of Dumbledore’s is the sentiment that most moves me in the entire series.

Growing up with OCD, intrusive thoughts often goaded me to doubt my own goodness. The preoccupations that seemed hardwired to circuit through my mind often convinced me of my own degeneracy. 

When such thoughts come calling now, though, Dumbledore’s knowing voice reminds me that it is not my doubts or predispositions that determine my character, but how I choose to react to them. So, daily I make the choice to breathe through my Devil’s Snare obsessions and to continue stumbling toward goodness.

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I just finished The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (great book, but very long, semi-worth the length), and at the end she muses about how certain art speaks to us, whispers across time to our souls. As a voracious reader, I sometimes skim through these kind of passages, so it was a delight to read the texts that have whispered to your soul.

    I almost wrote my top ten post about lines of poetry that I love. Here’s one I come back to often:
    “If I touch only the hem of his garment, one woman thought, I will be healed.
    Could I bear the look on his face when he wheels around?” (Marie Howe, “The Star Market”)

    Reply
    • Abby Zwart

      Alex, I’ve had The Goldfinch on my reading list for so long but the length just kills me. This recommendation is… sort of helping 🙂

      I ALSO almost wrote my post about poetry! It just got too cheesy. So I’m glad Gabe tackled the “why literature feels so important” theme.

      Here’s one that always sticks with me:
      O stand, stand at the window
      As the tears scald and start;
      You shall love your crooked neighbour
      With your crooked heart. (Auden, “As I Walked out One Evening”)

      Reply
    • Gabe

      Hello, Alex!

      Thank you for reading! I have heard so many good things about Donna Tartt’s work, but as my post notes, I can be a painfully slow reader, and the girth of her books has always intimidated me.

      Also, thank you for sharing some writing that resonates with you! Selfishly, I would love another theme month in which everyone on the blog shares their favorite literary passage!

      Also, to add to your and Abby’s poetry fest, there is a poem by my favorite poet, Frank O’Hara, unimaginatively titled “Poem” that contains my very favorite passages of poetry:

      “Once I destroyed a man’s idea of himself to have him. // If i’d had a samovar then / I’d have made him tea / and as hyacinths grow from / a pot he would love me.”

      It’s so haunting and beautiful that I can’t shake it!

      Anyway, thank you for continuing the conversation!

      Reply
  2. Kyric Koning

    I need to get back into reading. So much wisdom and beauty to be found in the words of others. Thanks for this, Gabe. Always a delight to be introduced to new books, new worlds, and the words that bind all together.

    Reply
    • Gabe

      Hi, Kyric!

      Thank you, again, for your readership. It is so nice to have people like you on the blog that actively invest in this community of writers.

      Here’s hoping you can find many new worlds to delight in this summer!

      Reply
      • Kyric Koning

        Cheers, m’lad! It doesn’t take much, but it has surprisingly deep ripples. Now that’s something I can get behind!

        Reply

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