Do books help?

During the last year of my master’s degree, I fell into a funk. The funk may have been caused by a Freaks and Geeks marathon — watching whiz kid Lindsay Weir ditch the mathletes for the burnouts couldn’t have been motivating — or it may have been my subconscious trying to tell me I wasn’t quite on the right track, career-wise. I’ll never know. But I do know how I got out of it. I dropped a class sort of in order to read The Way the Crows Flies, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s 800-pager. Yeah, it was crazy, especially because it meant I’d have to double up the following semester and the program was stressful and competitive enough as it was. But I really wanted to read this book. And so, while my journalism classmates were freaking out about the Master Research Project (the MRP or the merp, as we affectionately called it), I curled up in bed with a novel inspired by a true story, which remains a favourite to this day.

The next semester, I took an English class on 1970s Canadian long poetry. Not necessarily applicable to the journalism world, but that was my elective. I loved it. It would not be hyperbolic to say that bp Nichol restored my faith in language, that The Martyrology refreshed and reset something in me (and good god, if you like poetry, go read it right now). And of course, I got through my master’s degree, and I did just fine.

I’ve been thinking about all this after getting to the end of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a book I’d like to marry if such a thing were in style. In her chapter, “Writing a Present,” Lamott expresses her belief that books can help people struggling with the grim realities of the world. She talks about how she wrote novels for people in her life — for her father and later a close friend, both of whom died of cancer — as presents. Gifts to them she hoped would also help someone else. “I wasn’t writing the book with my thumb stuck out, trying to hitchhike into history: I just wanted to write a book for my father that might also help someone going through a similar situation,” she says. I’ve been mulling this over these last few days, trying to decide whether books really can help — and if so, how, and how much.

As a writer, I would like to help, if I could. I don’t know if this is possible.

In an old interview in the Paris Review, Raymond Carver took a cynical view. He says he doubts his stories will change people. “Not change in any profound sense,” he tells the interviewer. “Maybe not any change at all.”

He continues: “I remember in my twenties reading plays by Strindberg, a novel by Max Frisch, Rilke’s poetry, listening all night to music by Bartók, watching a tv special on the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo and feeling in each case that my life had to change after these experiences, it couldn’t help but be affected by these experiences and changed. There was simply no way I would not become a different person. But then I found out soon enough my life was not going to change after all.”

But although those blissful highs might not be change, certainly they can help someone along in a way that might lead to change, in some form, someday. Right?

I have no idea whether a novel about someone dying from cancer would help me cope with the loss of a loved one, to use Lamott’s example, and I’m glad I haven’t been in the position to find out. And I don’t know whether books have the ability to profoundly change people, or whether I believe that they can, and I may spend my whole life trying to figure this out.

But I do know one thing. I can’t think of anything better than a book to take you away from where you are, or even who you are, to provide a moment’s respite from life’s big uglies, be they frustration or apathy or loneliness or something I’ve yet to experience. I don’t know if books can change you, but they can offer you this temporary freedom, a salve. And that is worth a lot.

Beyond that, books offer ideas for how to live. They can be road maps for dreamers like me.

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