Reading Serendipity

Litlove recently wrote a post in which she used the phrase “the usual serendipity of reading,” which is a great way to describe how books so often speak to each other and to us in unexpected ways. I’ve recently come across my own example. (And, in a nice twist, I’ve just been talking about serendipity in my “Intro to the Arts” course as we discuss how to access one’s creativity.) I’ve been reading Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart where she writes about how we tend to run away from anything that is painful or unpleasant rather than facing it and considering what it means and what it might teach us. She writes:

Most of us do not take these situations [situations that cause discomfort] as teachings. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape — all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain. In fact, the rampant materialism that we see in the world stems from this moment. There are so many ways that have been dreamt up to entertain us away from the moment, soften its hard edge, deaden it so we don’t have to feel the full impact of the pain that arises when we cannot manipulate the situation to make us come out looking fine.

Those of you who participated in Infinite Summer may know where I’m going with this: Infinite Jest deals with exactly this dynamic — the impulse to run away from pain and discomfort straight into the arms of whatever distraction we can find. People are so desperate for entertainment and distraction, in fact, that in Infinite Jest their lives are at risk. At the center of the novel’s plot (such as it is) is a film referred to as “the entertainment” that is so seductive, so irresistable, that people literally can’t draw their eyes away from it and will starve themselves and die rather than have to stop watching it. And others — lots of others — distract themselves with alcohol and drugs, violence, obsessive work, or really anything that can keep them from having to think. Facing their problems directly is just too difficult.

My favorite character in the book, Don Gately, is a recovering drug addict who has learned all this, in his own way. Now that he is no longer addicted to drugs, thanks to AA, he is finding out what it means to face pain and discomfort directly. He is finding out that all the things the drugs helped him repress are now coming back, and he has become haunted by memories of his hellishly difficult childhood and his horribly violent young adulthood in a way he’s never experienced before.

I love Gately because he’s such a brave soul, and he has no idea just how brave he is. He looks around him at the halfway house where he lives and works and sees people who are just beginning to attend AA meetings and who scoff at all the cheesiness and cliches involved, and he understands why they scoff, but he has learned that facing reality in the way Pema Chödrön writes about is just so difficult that people can’t do it on their own. They need the support of the daily AA meetings, the belief in a vague “higher power,” the motivational cliches and all the rest of it. It’s a practice, really, not unlike meditation. Both practices teach people to take things one day at a time, or one moment at a time, to focus on what’s real, to face oneself directly and admit shortcomings honestly, to admit that we have no control over ourselves and our lives. Gately doesn’t understand why AA works, but he knows it does, and he’s willing to trust it, no matter what. And believe me, this trust gets tested.

I have no idea if David Foster Wallace was interested in Eastern spirituality at all, but I felt its presence in this novel. It may be I read it this way because I’m interested in it at the moment, but at any rate, I love how these two books have had so much to say to me.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction

11 responses to “Reading Serendipity

  1. I do love it when books talk to one another. That’s a beautiful link you’ve got there, Dorothy, and a profound one, too. Infinite Jest is clearly saying something we all ought to listen to.

  2. yay for serendipity and talking books! I love when that happens. I usually think of it as a gift from the book gods telling me something I need to hear or allowing a peek at the great big huge tangled webby universe. Either one is rather exhilarating.

  3. Very nice. I’m finding these sorts of connections all the time (perhaps too often, as I can never seem to settle down long enough to write coherently about them!).

    • Very nice. I’ve been working on my post about Infinite Jest, and I’ve also been pondering the depiction of AA. For me, it seems not unlike any religious practice in general–it’s done in community, it seems ridiculous, but the doing makes it work.

  4. Ann

    A friend of mine has exactly this philosophy about books and the way in which one seems to be cross-referencing another. The quote you’ve posted is speaking very strongly to me at the moment. Thank you, I must go and look this book out.

  5. So far, none of the posts floating around the book blogging world have made me want to try Infinite jest. This post, though, does…

  6. I love making connections between books or characters within books–it’s a little ephiphany, which is cool since neither set out to do so. I’m really curious about the Chodron book–now that both Litlove and you have read it. It’s interesting too what we bring to books and take away from them–something the author has no control over.

  7. Reading serendipity is a wonderful thing. I love to hear about the connections readers make between books–it is a reminder of the magic that is reading. Your post makes me think I should read Infinite Jest…

  8. It’s funny, but I actually found The Moonstone and Jude the Obscure speaking to each other a few times when I was reading them (two most highly unlikely books to do so, I would have thought). One of these days, you’re going to convince me to quit thinking about it and to put Infinite Jest in the TBR tome.

  9. I think avid readers crave these moments when books speak to us in a unique and special way. The great part is that these moments have a tendency to sneak up on us even though we are constantly looking for it.

  10. Litlove — thank you! I’m so pleased these two otherwise very different books came together for me. It’s a great surprise.

    Stefanie — I love the way you put that — the “great big huge tangled webby universe” — wonderful! Sometimes that universe is a very nice place to be :)

    Richard — they don’t happen to me that often, but I’m sure that’s because I could be more open to the experience, or could look out for it more. I think if people are open to serendipity, it will come to them.

    Teresa — that’s exactly it — the doing makes it work. That’s definitely a new insight for me, as I’ve always thought of religion and spirituality as being more about a state of mind than about actions. The protestant upbringing, I suppose.

    Ann — I’m very glad the quotation had things to say to you. It’s a fascinating little book, and Stefanie and Litlove have both had very interesting things to say about it.

    Courtney — well, I’m thrilled it makes you want to read it. I’m apparently a proselytizer for DFW and am trying to talk as many people as possible into reading his stuff.

    Danielle — you are definitely right that it’s cool when connections exist the authors had no idea about, and I love the way what we take from a book has nothing to do with what the author intended. We really do make books our own. I’m still in the middle of the Chodron book, but I’ll definitely review it when I’m finished.

    Gentle Reader — Infinite Jest is a wonderful book, and if you are at all tempted to read it I definitely would! And yes, reading is magical, and it’s great to be reminded of that.

    Emily — oh, come on, put Infinite Jest on the TBR pile! Becky’s considering reading it, as is Mike W., so surely you want to join in and be one of the cool kids, right? :)

    Tracie — yes, I love how we can be looking for something, and yet it can still surprise us. What a wonderful thing!

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