Posted by: Mark Nielsen | December 3, 2007

Tragedy or Insanity

“People are kind. They find it easy to forgive you in the name of tragedy or insanity.”

-Walker Percy, Love In the Ruins, 1971

Such is the kind of snickering philosophy and anthropology you get from Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, and a handful of other classic practitioners of what is called literary fiction. It’s a misnomer in some ways. I think it can become a catch-all category for anything that doesn’t fit in the category of a certain genre of fiction. Plus, some genre fiction writers are excellent literary fiction practitioners as well, in that they’re out to explore the human condition in-depth, not just to entertain us. And yeah, I’m wimping out by not naming more names here, but I didn’t set out today to recommend specific books or authors.What I did set out to do was to recommend reading older books from your local public library, instead of buying them. Not because I’m looking to take money away from anybody, or to save a few trees. No. I prefer my books to come from the library because the little notes and dog-ears serve to remind me I am not alone but am part of a reading community.

The quote above, for example, had some very light pencil marks around it. They weren’t obtrusive, just enough to help see that it was actually a subversively funny line, and I should pause to appreciate the artistry in it before continuing.

This is not the first time that I’ve seen this kind of pencil mark/highlight indicator. It seems like they’ve been in a dozen or more library books over the years. It’s as if I have a Reader’s Guardian Angel looking over my shoulder when it happens, saying, “See that? How cool is that?!”

I know I’m in the minority here, but the big kick that I get out of reading is that moment when plot becomes secondary and the author works in something bigger, maybe more universal – or maybe a telling detail, so beautifully rendered that it makes you stop and think.

Reading is like swimming: sure, you can do it alone, but it’s much more fun with friends.


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