‘Reading is An Act of Courage’

“…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

I love this passage from Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Whenever life throws tantrums, I always tell myself that it will rearrange itself. But there was an irrepressible question; it didn’t allow me to cement my conviction in the profound, beautiful quote from the book. Jude St. Francis, whose life the tome follows, seals a young student’s faith in life by making him believe that every loss is compensated. However, Jude didn’t seem to place his trust in that thought. I wanted Jude to live by it. But he didn’t. When he wanted a young boy to trust that life would rearrange itself, why did Jude not believe in it? The question taunted me and I posed it when Yanagihara was in Chennai for The Hindu’s Literary Festival, Lit For Life.

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Hanya Yanagihara at the festival. Image Courtesy: The Hindu

The moment I released the question, Yanagihara assured, “Jude believed in it.” I sighed. It’s a fascinating moment to get into Jude’s head. “But…” Yanagihara continued, “There is a difference between thinking you believe in it and truly believing in it.” I knew then why Jude was Jude; I love him more now.

A Little Life was a difficult read. It was as difficult as seeing a loved one living a life that’s refusing to be fair. I wanted to comfort Jude. But as much as I was helpless, he was impermeable to support. That made me more depressed. At one point in time, I lost the faculty to differentiate my darkness from the book’s. It was a singular darkness. A darkness that was bizarrely beautiful. A darkness that lingered on for so long that reconnecting with the reality was like walking out of the house and facing the blindingly bright sun after being in a dark room for days and days. Even that warmth couldn’t restore the equilibrium. Yanagihara was right when she observed that the book is so much like a relationship. “Intimate and claustrophobic.”

After I read the book, I didn’t know how to cope with the grief. I wanted to talk a lot about the book. I read this passage over and over again and washed my Kindle with my torrential tears.

(There are some spoilers in this passage.)

“It is also then that I wish I believed in some sort of life after life, that in another universe, maybe on a small red planet where we have not legs but tails, where we paddle through the atmosphere like seals, where the air itself is sustenance, composed of trillions of molecules of protein and sugar and all one has to do is open one’s mouth and inhale in order to remain alive and healthy, maybe you two are there together, floating through the climate. Or maybe he is closer still: maybe he is that gray cat that has begun to sit outside our neighbor’s house, purring when I reach out my hand to it; maybe he is that new puppy I see tugging at the end of my other neighbor’s leash; maybe he is that toddler I saw running through the square a few months ago, shrieking with joy, his parents huffing after him; maybe he is that flower that suddenly bloomed on the rhododendron bush I thought had died long ago; maybe he is that cloud, that wave, that rain, that mist. It isn’t only that he died, or how he died; it is what he died believing. And so I try to be kind to everything I see, and in everything I see, I see him.”

I asked Yanagihara to help her readers recover from the trauma. She guffawed. Her laughter proved that she empathised. She suggested that I visit A Little Life’s Instagram account where she had shared the titles of books that a devastated soul can read after A Little Life.

Yanagihara’s answers seemed honest. When she was told that a lot of readers had to abandon the book owing to the graphic depiction of violence, she said that the book belongs to the reader once it’s published. I noticed no trace of arrogance or regret in her tone. The remark was just that.

A reader is always judged. I often field remarks like, “Do not slip into a book to escape reality. Just face it.” Or a rude comment like, “Why do you waste so much time and money on books?” Although I have stopped explaining why I read so much, the remarks still make me livid. But Yanagihara made me feel special when she said, “Reading is an act of courage, an act of surrender.”

Of course, you have to be brave to walk headfirst into a book despite knowing that it will leave its hands into your heart, pull it out as blood drips all around you, and make you feel empty… yet full.

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18 thoughts on “‘Reading is An Act of Courage’

    1. I just finished reading the article, Val. Thank you for telling me about it. Obama is an inspiring reader. I particularly liked these lines from the article. ” you learn how to listen to people’s stories and can find what’s sacred in other people’s stories, then you’ll be able to forge a relationship that lasts.”

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Beautifully written Deepika.
    I vibed with your quoted passage. Being a non-believer I’ve often thought how comforting to think that there was afterlife.
    “ … I wish I believed in some sort of life after life, …
    and after we lost Pappa (Cleo’s mom), Ive thought
    … maybe he is that gray cat that has begun to sit outside our neighbor’s house, purring when I reach out my hand to it; maybe he is that new puppy I see tugging at the end of my other neighbor’s leash; maybe he is that toddler I saw running through the square a few months ago, shrieking with joy, his parents huffing after him; maybe he is that flower that suddenly bloomed on the rhododendron bush I thought had died long ago; maybe he is that cloud, that wave, that rain, that mist.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks so much, Deepika, for your beautiful blog about such a difficult book. Honestly though, I still can’t put it all together yet. I tried to read the story, and actually got upset that there was so much violence so took it back to the library about half way through.

    Did Yanagihara talk about what led her to write this book? It seems too complicated to be a book about pure faith. Somehow I can’t align faith with the levels of repeated cruelty in the book. There was something about Jude that made me so upset…I didn’t understand why he couldn’t distance himself from the violence. If a person is in a concentration camp they cannot distance themselves from violence. But Jude wasn’t locked up. It seemed that he had people and resources in his life that could have helped him walk away. Perhaps that was the tragedy.

    Since I didn’t finish the book though it isn’t fair for me to expect to understand it! I do think that it is terrific that you did read the book, got to meet and hear Yanagihara speak, and that you wrote this wonderful blog for us, your fans!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Heidi. I was thinking of you when a lot of readers at the event said that they had to drop the book because of so much violence. It is difficult to wade through that massive part, Heidi. But once if we cross it, there are some answers for why Jude couldn’t distance himself from all the abuse. I wish we lived in the same city. We could have discussed it over coffee. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like a book I will fall irrevocably in love with. It also sounds like one which will break my heart. Which is why I am conflicted on picking this up. But there is one more thing – I have a difficult time with graphic violence, even in small doses, so I wonder if I will be able to get through this at all.

    Liked by 1 person

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