I spent the last two weeks driving cattle from a small, desolate Texas town to the empty skies of Montana. (Though I never left Manhattan. I barely left the West Village.) I lost a lot of friends along the way. Some left. Some got left behind. Some died. Though they’re all still with me. I met a lot of decent people who did terrible things and some terrible people who did worse. They’re still with me too.
At the same time I listened to my late Grandfather, a man I idolized and loved and wished I could be more like, tell me the story of people facing a hard life for the sake of it, because what else is there to do but face it. I can still hear his voice echoing across the plains…a Lonesome Dove.
I’m trying to reconcile with the experience. There were things I learned about myself I’d rather not know, or admit. There were also things I was reminded of about myself I know to be true. It was magic.
Of course, there are all different kinds of magic. (I can hear the Harry Potter hordes looming, so cool your broomsticks and put your bent wands back in your pants; I’ll clarify.) The magic I’m talking about is the magic of reading good fiction, fiction that unlocks the imagination and lets dead voices talk about cattle drives across the plains, that lets me be on those very plains nodding off on a horse or gambling or whoring. The kind of magic that allows me to dislike a character for his weakness in love and ineffectual advances towards a woman he wants worse than water, dislike him because in part he’s me. The kind of magic that reveals to me I’m both the loyal lover who will always be there and the scoundrel who’ll leave for a card game and some whiskey. The kind that reveals a whore in me. The kind that allows me to find the savage. The kind that allows me to feel my female body. The kind that lets me know without reservation that I’d charge a camp and execute everyone in it without a word in order to save the woman they stole and abused, while I am also the man standing impotently afraid and watching someone else do it. The kind that allows me to sit sleepily under the wide night sky and wonder if I could hang on the crescent moon. The kind that shows me to be a father who won’t recognize his son and a son who wishes he knew who his father was. The kind that lets me ask and answer the question of whether or not I’m a good enough friend to do that. The kind that allows me to understand so many different perspectives, to empathize so deeply with so many different people, their love, their fear, their loyalty, their hate, to live so many different lives all at once, that I cannot help but be made a little larger in my feeling for everyone in the world. That’s the kind of magic I’m talking about.
Reading fiction is different. The reader is so deeply involved in creating the story that he is every character, every voice. Everything happens to him, is done to him. And he does everything to others, good and bad. Reading is so tied up with interior imagination and creation, so intertwined with our own emotions and experiences, so personal, individual, and solitary an act, that it changes the reader in a way that few other art forms can. It’s one that allows us a peak of sorts into the great unknown: the thoughts and motives of others. I’m reminded of the Doctor measuring Marlow’s head before he heads off to the African Congo, telling him the change happens on the inside. It certainly does.
I fucking love a good story. I’m not knocking other forms of artistic expression or catharsis, but I celebrate reading because it’s the most internal. Everything else is the outside coming in, but words come alive inside me and I’m rewarded by their birth.
The reward is empathy, something I think we could all use a little more of. I’m not talking about compassion, feeling sorry for someone (which is a feeling that resides on the outside, a feeling that still has a sense of “the other”). I’m talking about empathy, actually sharing the feelings of another. Literally having those feelings oneself. Even in the smallest doses, even in the most commercial romance-thriller-sci-fi-fantasy-erotica (no one steal that…I think I just found a new niche genre), it creates empathic understanding. It places me inside someone else and places them inside me. That’s how reading fiction works. That’s how it works its magic. The voice in the story is always me and their voices are always in my head.
Sure, it’s fiction. And, by definition, fiction isn’t real. In fact, fiction is an elaborate lie. But such is another of the great paradoxes of life: a lie can tell a truth.
You leave without leaving and a beloved dead Grandpa can still tell you a story. Now, that’s magic.