DL: Transcendent Moments in Fiction Reading
All of us who read novels have had moments like this—the lucky ones among us have had several.
The first I remember came when I was in high school. I’d only recently been granted liberty to read, without my parents’ guidance, anything I could find on our family bookshelves, and it was with a great sense of freedom that I browsed the shelves one night for a novel (since I’d already read everything we owned on natural history, my other passion). I picked out a cheap mass-market edition of Pearl Buck’s The Townsman. I didn’t know much about Pearl Buck, except that I’d already read The Good Earth for school and had enjoyed it. I skimmed the back ad. This was a very different novel from The Good Earth—a historical about a man living in a small town in the American Great Plains in the nineteenth century. Like most American boys in the early sixties, I loved reading about that time and place: the great myth of the American West. I plopped down on my chocolate-brown corduroy bedspread that night, quickly scanned the cages of my menagerie around the room, making sure that everybody was still alive, and began to read.
As I’d expected, I enjoyed her evocation of time and place, and the subtle complexities of her plot drew me in. But this time, something different happened. There was something intriguing about her protagonist. I found myself chuckling in the first couple of chapters: “Yeah, that sounds like something I’d say. And here—yup, that’s what I’d do, too.” But as the evidence piled up, I stopped chuckling. I felt a chill, and by the time I’d worked my way several chapters into the book, I was breathing faster, deeper, my eyes widening in wonder—this man was me! It wasn’t just that I liked this character, not just that I admired him—he was me! If I’d been an adult living in a small town on the plains in the nineteenth century, this is how I’d have acted, these were the decisions I’d have made, the conversations I’d have had. I’d never met Pearl Buck, wasn’t even sure if she was still alive, but she had nailed me in this book, with great insight not just into how I spoke and acted, but also how I felt and thought, even in the secret heart of me that I revealed to no one, not even my friends or parents—the things I was proud of, and my hidden shames.
Decades have passed, but I remember the wonder, the sense of a world opening to me. If this somewhat obscure novel could create this sensation in me, how many other novels, other novelists, out there could speak to me in this way, or in ways even more profound? I began to haunt the fiction shelves at the public library, trying novels and collections of stories by authors well known and not so well known, judging less on reputation than on how much I liked the first few pages, and finding new favorites (Alexander Solzhenitzen, Isaac Bashevis Singer) and expanding my reading in those I’d already come to love (Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad). Some were hits, some misses, but I was rewarded often enough with new plots to lose myself in, new characters to love. I’d always been a reader of stories, but in The Townsman I had discovered something different—a new way to read, at a whole new level. I had learned how to invest myself in the reading of fiction, and how to be consciously transformed by it, rather than simply entertained.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my own writing changed soon thereafter. Whereas I’d been writing stories for years simply for the love of it and showing them to no one except perhaps family, now I began to write stories and poems and circulate them among my friends, anxious to gauge, by their reactions, whether I was engaging them at a deeper level than, say, a television program would. And when one of my creations seemed to elicit a more profound response from my friends, I would screw up my courage and stick it into a manila envelope and mail it off with hopes and prayers.
It would be five more years before I would find an editor enchanted enough by my poetry to publish any of it—and another five before any magazine would publish a story of mine. And in those poems and stories—and in all the ones since—I have striven to achieve the same type, the same depth, of response in my readers that Pearl Buck’s novel achieved in me on that long-ago evening on my chocolate-brown bedspread, surrounded by cages of critters I’d dragged home from hill and desert.
I invite you to respond to this blog—what have been your own transcendent moments in fiction reading? What novel, what story, was it that removed the scales from your eyes about what fiction could be? And how did it affect your own writing?
I’ve experienced many transcendent moments since, although few that I recall with such clarity. I have many prayers as a writer, but one of the strongest and most persistent is this: that other readers will have their own stories to tell of the night they were touched at the very deepest levels of their psyche by a story that opened their eyes to a new way of experiencing the world—and that the book that creates that experience in them will be one written by me.
Dave Lambert is a novelist and an editor of Christian fiction. He and his wife, Cindy, live in Michigan.