Recent studies show that literature stimulates the brain in startling ways: Fiction can increase empathy, animate our senses, and cause positive changes in the way we behave and think. What’s not known, writes Emory University neurobiologist Gregory S. Berns, is how long these changes last.
For Susan Minot, author of Thirty Girls, the answer is briefly, with an afterglow. In our conversation for this series, Minot made the case that books have a visceral, almost physical impact as we read, but the feeling diffuses quickly. So Minot reads constantly but seldom from start to finish—preferring to fall under the spell of many books throughout her writing day, subjecting herself one passage at a time to narrative enchantments. We discussed the alchemy that occurs as our eyes move across the page, and how beloved lines affect and shape us as we return again and again.
Thirty Girls takes an episode from history as its starting point: the abduction of 139 girls from a secondary school in Aboke, Uganda, by militants from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. In the novel, as in real life, a schoolteacher tracks the rebel soldiers and negotiates the release of all but 30 of her students. Minot tells the harrowing story of 30 girls’ captivity using two alternating points of view: Sections about Jane, an American reporting on Uganda, are interspersed with direct narration from 15-year-old Esther, one of the captives.
Minot is the author of two acclaimed story collections (Monkeys and Lust) and two novels, and she has won an O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize. She spoke to me by phone.
Susan Minot: When asked to choose a favorite line for this series, I was not sure, truly, what to choose. So many things tacked up on the wall, so many lines returned to, so many book sections and poems pored over. I have probably five Commonplace books filled with such things, not to mentions scraps tucked into over a hundred notebooks and journals. There is no doubt that the work by other writers, from opuses to aphorisms, are continual hand-holds, if not crutches, if not actual daily bread, if not air to breathe.
People tend to talk about books as if they’re something you knock off—“Oh, I finished that book!”—as though the point is to make it through and find out what happened. That’s not how I see it. I never finish the books I love—I don’t think of books that way. They’re worlds to dip in and out of, and my relationship to them is continually deepening and evolving. To read this portion or that one, to inhabit this scene for a while, to experience this or that narrative pleasure, to orient my perspective briefly through the lens of a particular style of writing or character’s voice. I read, and re-read, to experience the magic of art as it unfolds. That experience matters more to me than discovering what happens; I am more interested in the how. I guess I’ve lost my relationship to books as being things with beginnings, middles, and ends.
People don’t talk very much about the experience of reading, the experience of what actually happens while you’re sitting, concentrating on a book. But we experience connection. I think you can have that connection if you read just a page of a book. One page is enough to open you—to allow you to enter into someone else’s consciousness, or creation, or world, so that you are communing with another. You can inhabit the world of the book, or you can feel the world of book inhabiting you, and when that happens, you really have communed with another experience. Reading is the great, connecting thing that keeps us from being these solitary columns, anxious perhaps, perhaps sad, in any case all on our own. Inhabiting another experience can give you a kind of relief from that.
This experience, which each book facilitates in its own unique way, is profoundly sustaining for me. I’m always taking sustenance from other books. Really, reading is like feeding myself—I need to keep reading like I need to keep eating. I am not talking about sitting in a corner with my nose in a book all the time. It can also be the opposite. Just as there are different kinds of meals, there are different ways of reading. You can sit down to a long banquet and take your time, or you can have a quick snack. (Poetry is best for this. ) But the kind of reading I do most is more like grazing than sinking for hours into a text. I have a compulsive need to reacquaint myself with other points of view—because otherwise life intervenes and I forget them. It is reorienting my mind to recall what certain writers have to say, as well as seeing again how they go about saying it. To the Lighthouse is a book I’ve loved a long time, but I can still go back and immerse myself in it again—even one passage will do—and am able to re-experience Woolf’s particular magic. Then I reconnect, directly: “Ah, yes, this is why To the Lighthouse blew my mind.”
I started keeping Commonplace books—journals with lists of copied-out quotes—as a teenager. I spent a lot of time writing in journals and also reading—getting to know other authors. When I was so moved by them, I wanted to do something about it, so I would write down the lines and passages I loved, as a way of remembering them, as well as sort of studying them. I think the act of writing out lines from books helped me absorb that language longer and more deeply. When something moves you, you want to keep that feeling. Writing a line down again is a way of holding onto it.
I still keep a lot of quotes, shorter things—these days, in the back pages of my journals. In all my journals, the last ten pages or so are filled with these kinds of notes. I’ll either mark it in the book I am reading and try to remember the next day to write it down. Or I’ll write it down right then. Sometimes I’ll write it in the back of the book itself. Or I’ll fold the page to go back to later. If I’m reading it in the New York Review of Books or something, I’ll tear it out and paste it in somewhere. I’ll usually try to note things down the next day or within the week. Otherwise the (old) mind, that is, my mind, will forget most of it and it will be gone.
This is valuable for me. I look at these notes to remind myself of what was helpful, or true, or inspiring. It’s one thing to know a book you love is on your shelf. But if you take four or five pages of notes and have those aside, you’re preserving an easier-to-find record of places that struck you the most.
One of the early times I felt this instinct—to engage, and re-engage, with a work of literature, to try to hold onto its magic, was with T.S. Eliot. I was in boarding school in Concord, Massachusetts when I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and it sort of knocked the top of my head off. I liked that feeling and wanted to inhabit it, I guess. So I memorized it—poetry again is more conducive to this kind of possession. Even today, when there much forgotten in the last 24 hours, I still have three-fourths of it. I remember the lines that most delighted me then: “I grow old, I grow old / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” or “the yellow fog that rubs its muzzle against the windowpane” and how it “made a sudden leap, curled once around the house and fell asleep.” At the center of the poem, the character was a proper British man, though I see I ignored that completely, and instead saw the part of him that struggling with existential questions:
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
He’s got his pin and his tie, and yet he’s asking, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” The juxtaposition of that really got me, and I see now, it never left. I certainly try to keep those two things in mind when I’m making something. The details of life, and the larger spiritual and moral questions are there side by side, the exalted next to the mundane. That’s the way the world is made, and you won’t convey experience very well if you ignore it. The way life is made up of the daring to eat a peach and constricting the tie and the pin—and then the wriggling and being pinned to a wall!—along with the “Do I dare disturb the universe?”
It is good if both these things are there, whether explicitly or not. Even in a short story, you try for an expansion in the details. Higher considerations are inextricably linked to physicality, and mundanity, and the randomness that we swim in every day. That is life, even if we strive to feel or think or write something which has a shape to it.
So, to me still today, I think the process of writing is saying—“Do I dare disturb the universe?” Do I dare to think I can have an effect? Is it possible to make things better? And let’s hope one can.
So, T. S. Eliot did disturb my universe—for better, and for good—in a way that sustains me still. And there remain many books I turn to again and again for this kind of nourishment. You say you have your shelf—if only it were just a one shelf! Abraham Lincoln was said to have studied Shakespeare deeply. That was his shelf. And a good choice. But I have many shelves, and they shift. Some stay on there. Montaigne is always on that shelf. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams is on that shelf, though I haven’t read him in a long time. Tolstoy and Chekhov and Salinger are on that shelf, Emily Dickinson is on that shelf. Rumi is on the shelf, though he didn’t used to be—he’s a new one. David Foster Wallace is on that shelf. These authors aid me. Period. They lift my mind to a place where maybe it’s hard to lift it on my own. It’s like meditating. It’s like exercising. They crucially steer me towards keeping the right things in mind.
If I think about it, it’s as if there’s a crowd of people surrounding me at the desk—the books I’ve known and loved best. They help me sit there through the long days of working. I don’t sit frozen for three hours. I get up and read, and sit down and write again, read and write again. My heroes help me feel less all alone. They remind me of what’s important and help guide me in the right direction.
“There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered,” Nabokov said. “He may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.”
In other words, great writing might teach or entertain us—but it enchants us most of all. For me, when this enchantment happens, there is a magic that sustains my writing and person, as wholesome as nourishing food. And no matter what kind of enchantment I may be looking for in a given moment—relief or delight or guidance or suspension from the weight of my own life—I treasure each variety and kind.