Giving someone a book is an intimate affair. In giving them a book you are giving them a whole world to decipher and discover. You are giving them a world of symbolism and coded messages, which it is up to them to unravel. The decision to buy someone a book is therefore one that takes great consideration.
It is an inevitable fact that, when someone buys you something so intimate as a book, you can’t help but look for clues in the novel as to try to figure out why it is this book someone has given you. You see things in unexpected places that you may not have otherwise seen; you begin to over-analyse; you become a detective on the lookout for clues. They have specifically chosen this book to give you over the billions of others, and you feel compelled to know why.
I begin with this obsessive act of deciphering for a reason. Recently, I brought one of my best friends, Nick, a book for his twentieth birthday. However, it wasn’t just any book – it was my favourite book.
I don’t think I would be too wrong in saying that our favourite books are not always the books with the most literary value. Indeed, the integrity of the ‘Literary Canon’ is about as fictional as the books it seeks to idolise; the likes of Dickens, Hardy and Chaucer (all male writers, may I add) are idolised because we keep them on a pedestal; because we keep idolising them. Don’t get me wrong: these authors were authors of immense talent. But what I am also saying is that I fell asleep while reading Jude the Obscure.
The distinction between ‘great’ Literature and our ‘favourite’ pieces of Literature therefore lies in our own individuality. Books speak to us. They capture us. They shape us. They are us.
I brought Nick Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami.
It is a fantastic novel that is only surpassed in its beauty by its despair. A story about a man who falls so innocently in love with a repressed lesbian who falls in love with a woman seventeen years older than herself who is incapable of love, all characters are exquisitely doomed from the outset. Yet Murakami creates worlds of beauty in every novel he writes. If I had wanted to buy Nick Murakami’s ‘greatest’ novel, would I have brought him Sputnik Sweetheart? Maybe, but probably not. The reason why I chose him this novel over the thousands of the other great novels scattering our books shelves is due to the single fact that every time I read Sputnik Sweetheart, I see a little more of myself emerge in its hallow pages.
In Sputnik Sweetheart I found a fellow spirit who didn’t understand love; who didn’t understand the societal obsession with the concept we’re taught to aspire for from birth; someone who would prefer spending her teens wishing she was a writer and reading Jack Kerouac novels than chasing after boys; someone who ‘was a hopeless romantic, a bit set in her ways— innocent of the ways of the world, to put a nice spin on it. Start her talking and she’d go on nonstop, but if she was with someone she didn’t get along with—most people in the world, in other words—she barely opened her mouth’; I found myself.
I saw myself and all my weird habits reflected back at me, obscured, in a way I’d never seen before. I learnt that it was ok to be an outcast and not understand society because, as long as you have one person to hold on to, one person to listen, then that’s all you need in life. Just one person, be this a friend or a partner, or even a book.
‘Great’ novels are well written. They get stunning reviews. They get the Man Booker Prize. But our favourite art speaks to us. Art has taught me more about myself more than school ever can, and this is what our favourite books do to us; they show us a mirror of society before shattering this mirror into a thousand tiny pieces and ripping up every grasp on reality we ever thought we had.
Nick texted me soon after I gave him the book. He didn’t say anything, he simply sent me a quotation – a quotation about myself, written from Murakami’s hand. That was enough; he didn’t need any explanation. He could see the ties.
Yesterday, I was in a record shop in Worcester, where I stumbled across one of his favourite novels, Essays in Love by Alain de Botton. I was captured from the beginning. It’s one of those book that finds all the streamline faults in ourselves and forces them open for examination. But then I stumbled across a certain chapter entitled ‘Marxism’ and saw Nick in literary form.
We love a book because we see ourselves in it. Because an author has managed to take our own life and poetise it, redrawing the outlines of our own life so that we’re hidden behind the face of someone else. The plot may be different from the narrative of our own life, but there’s something of ourselves there, no matter how minute. We’re all egocentric at heart, a fact we’re better to admit rather than hide behind mutters of modesty. Are we not all on the search to find someone who understands us more ably than we can understand ourselves? We can only ever wish to find someone so complete as to know all the gaps in our own being and make them whole but, when a stranger – a mere author – comes along and understands all our weaknesses, all our blank spaces, then this is when Literature enters a different dimension. We learn that we are not lone travellers orbiting through the universe alone, but there are others out there as just as lost in space as we are.
The love of Literature has a certain kind of intimacy that the love of sport or the love of baking or the love of bird-watching can never have. To share Literature, to admit to not merely liking it, but cherishing it, is to reveal a part of ourselves to another person that we normally hide behind layers of socially-accepted characteristics. Parts we deem weak and vulnerable that we would rather keep in a closet than reveal to the world.
Yes, while we might appreciate a novel’s delicate use of language or its innovative use of metaphors, it is ultimately its ability to capture life and dangle it on a string before our very eyes that gives it value. It is its ability to show us the true poeticism of our own lives and make us love the small details of ourselves that we never realised were part of us, that make us love Literature.
Words by Juliette Rowsell