Another ‘Found’ Vulnerable Reading

This blog is about what I call vulnerable reading. But the point is not to claim to invent vulnerable reading. The point is to practice it, which includes appreciating others who express my project as well as I have. It’s reassuring that others already know what vulnerable reading is and can express it perfectly well. Not feeling alone is a significant goal.

My appreciation today is for Maura Kelly’s article published in the New York Times “Voices” series, February 6, 2019. Ms. Kelly begins with a darkly funny telling of a dialogue between herself and a crisis-line volunteer. She had called because she felt at risk of committing suicide. The volunteer is either a therapeutic genius or a lucky amateur, because after some false starts, she makes a life-saving suggestion: “Then how about, do you have something good to read?” In fact, Ms. Kelly does; it’s Anna Karenina, which she has read up to just before Anna’s suicide.

“Fear Anna’s darkening thoughts would darken my own, I’d stopped reading,” she writes. Given the way my mind works, that reminded me of reading Grimms’ tales to my daughters. A reasonable parental fear would be that taking small children through the dark forest of childhood–and often adult–fears would not be comforting to small people. But it is comforting; it has been for generations. Sensitive children listen peacefully to horrific violences (my favourite might be Snow White’s evil step-mother being put into iron shoes that had been baked in the fire, and then made to dance until she died–that didn’t make the final edit of Disney’s version). Then these children go to sleep. Nothing like a good story before bed.

“I knew Anna would kill herself by kneeling before a train,” Ms. Kelly writes, “so I urged her to stop and turn around: You poor fool! Look at all you have. Look at all the people you’ll hurt.” Then she expresses the value of vulnerable reading: “In saying that to her, I said something similar to myself: I’m not utterly alone.” Ms. Kelly does not exactly identify with Anna, although there’s an element of identification when she writes that Tolstoy “call[ed] on me to talk back to Anna, and to the Anna in myself.” That balance of identification–the “Anna in myself”–in tension with distance–“to talk back to Anna”–gets at the effect of vulnerable reading.

Ms. Kelly not only exemplifies the practice of vulnerable reading. She also offers a succinct statement of about as much theory as it may need: “A good novel is great company, less an escape from life than a different way to engage. A good novel is reassurance that other people have endured tragedies….It’s evidence I’m not alone….A good novel is a form of hope.” Nobody ever says it all, but that says enough. I especially like her phrase, “a different way to engage.” That may be, most of the time, as much as you can and possibly should offer people.

If I have any reservations about the Times article, these concern the sub-title, which I’d bet was written by a staff person, not Ms. Kelly herself. It subtly simplifies Ms. Kelly’s words: “A good novel can be a reminder that other people have endured tragedies, long ordeals, bad odd.” Except, Anna doesn’t endure. It’s in Anna’s non-endurance that Tolstoy creates an opening for Ms. Kelly to talk back to Anna, and to the part of herself that needs talking back to. A work of art becomes good when it offers characters, tragic or comic, enduring or not enduring, who can be companion-helpers to those who struggle to endure. I am being picky, but the Times subtitle emphasizes identification–novels’ characters as role models in endurance–and misses the need for distance.

Somewhere, in all those pages getting to Anna’s fatal moment, had Tolstoy been preparing his readers to be able to talk back to her? What was his implicit pedagogy that had such therapeutic force, to which Ms. Kelly is witness?