Wednesday, May 27, 2015

books as friends, and a city that gives you space

If books were my friends (which, um, they are), I'd probably categorize them the same way I do my friends. I hope that doesn't sound overly utilitarian, but let's face it: hopefully we love our friends as wholly as we're able, but we often appreciate them for those one or two unique and complex qualities that sets them apart from others we know. It's what appeals to us in them, what draws us in. For example, I have this friend at work who is endlessly bubbly and enthusiastic and loves frappuccinos (with lots of whipped cream, of course), and she also has this incredibly smart, analytic take on things. I especially love to be around her when I want dessert, need a pep talk, or feel like my brain is failing me. And because of her, I just bought a girlie dress that I wouldn't say is "me," but that I love.

The same with books. I'm not looking to each book I read to bring the same kind of experience. I guess this is pretty obvious, especially when it comes to choosing different genres. But even when I read, say, two different books of narrative nonfiction, the author's voice and spin and language and images all work together to create a unique feel. What I'm getting at is that, reading Meghan Daum's newest book of essays, The Unspeakable, made me feel like I was with a friend (and actually reminded me of one of my closest friends). Daum's book is interesting, and heartfelt but not overly emotional. She said a lot of things that question the way I usually think about the world around me, which got me thinking. And I didn't always agree with her, but I trusted her enough to keep going along with her.

I came to this book and author through an essay published in The New Yorker a few months back, which is also part of this collection. It's called Difference Maker, and in it, she writes about her desire to remain childless. As she digs through her experiences and relationships to help the reader understand her path to this decision, she remains balanced (not sentimental at all, a leaning that the subject could lend itself to pretty easily) and yet uncovers what she called the Central Sadness (what a universal name!) in her marriage during one season of recognizing what remaining childless might mean for her and her husband. When I first read this essay back in the fall, I sat on my couch for a while afterward, thinking about it - about her process and how I could relate to that Central Sadness she described, and also about how she was able to achieve what she did with her writing.

One of my favorite essays in Daum's new collection is about Los Angeles, called Invisible City. If you're a reader of this blog, you probably know that I have my issues with LA (the traffic! the incessant sun! the fake green! and the metaphor that is!). Daum doesn't so much rant about LA* as see it with clear eyes and describe what she sees. Her premise is that, even though LA is a place where people come to be seen (or known - like, become famous), it's also a place where you can be invisible. She writes:
Now I just think that LA is a place that's hard to see close up. You can't capture it from the street. It's an aerial-view kind of city, best photographed from a helicopter or hillside. There are people everywhere, but they are hidden in their cars or houses, or they are tiny specks hiking on canyon trails, their dogs even tinier specks beside them, the wildlife crouched in the sagebrush unnoticed. LA is a place that will leave you alone if you need it to. It will let you cry in your car. It will give you your space. (emphasis mine, because exactly.)
It might be weird of me to say, but Daum's essay made me a little more sympathetic toward LA. As if I never thought that some of its flaws weren't its intentional doing, but rather just a result of how people have people the place. That is one of the best qualities that a friend can have, isn't it - to help others see more clearly, and as a result, find it in themselves to forgive. To act with grace toward the world around them.

*Ok but she does rant just a little bit, with such fresh imagery: "The surreal effects of watching these [obvious LA] cliches play out before you in real life and in real time can make your head spin. They can make you feel like the one live person in an animated children's show."

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