Noah’s Compass by Ann Tyler is my first delightful reading discovery of 2010. Anne Tyler knows the beauty of ordinary people. In her character of Liam Pennywell she tells the story of a man who loses his job at 61 and finds the terrain of relationships completely befuddling. We find ourselves loving his willingness to live simply and to keep on trying to sort people out despite his constant confusion. His story is deeply touching because deep down in our own hearts we know we are all ordinary, confused and heroic. He is us.
I am grateful to have the gift of never tiring of people’s stories. As a therapist, I step into people’s lives and have the time to hear the details, to push for the details in all of their complexity. A wonderful author can create that same experience.
Liam was interrupted early in his life, as a student of philosophy who never finished his dissertation or Ph.D. In a painful argument with his daughter, he asks her for forgiveness and explains the Greek philosopher Epictetus: “Epictetus says that everything has two handles, one by which it can be borne and one by which it cannot. If your brother sins against you, he says, don’t take hold of it by the wrong he did you but by the fact he is your brother. That’s how it can be borne.” Another reason to read great authors is to be touched by wisdom. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help people make pain bearable and this quote is especially meaningful.
Reading helps us to understand relationships, the world and ourselves. Reading is one way to consider our own shortcomings. We read Liam’s description of himself “I just….don’t seem to have the hang of things, somehow. It’s as if I’ve never been entirely present in my own life.” Then we can ask ourselves “Is that also true of me in any way?” We can read about people who are misguided in love, who are easily manipulated and who lack courage. We can learn their lessons and decide to develop greater character within ourselves.
We can live an entire lifetime different from our own by reading books and then decide what’s important, what matters. Reading Black Flies by Shannon Burke gave me an unforgettable glimpse of what it was like to be a paramedic in Harlem in the mid 1990’s. Reading Pretty Birds by Scott Simon helped me to understand a Bosnian female sniper during a war I didn’t know enough about. Reading Neuromancer by William Gibson who coined the term “virtual reality” offered a powerful glimpse of the future before it came to pass, no small feat. Reading The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak and living life through a nine year old whose parents are taken away by the Nazis for being communists. She survives by stealing books. It is Death that narrates this riveting tale and we are surprised to learn that death fears humans. Reading increases my ability to imagine a life completely different from the one I live; this is not a small gift considering our culture suffers from a poverty of imagination.