When you’re in grad school, especially in English lit, you do a lot of reading. It may sound odd to some that sitting and reading can be a passion, but for me it has been — fully as much as the passion football fans feel this time of year for the next gluttonous ingestion of yet another bowl game. (I do watch football.) Yesterday evening I passed yet another three hours reading a favorite author by the name of Louise Penny. She’s written eleven novels, mysteries that reach literary realms. I have two or three to go. Last night it occurred to me that my passion is no less sedentary than the average bowl watcher. Only the players on the field and the characters in the novel are getting any exercise. In both cases the experience is totally vicarious for the bystander.
I admit that bellying up to the telly is far more social than watching football unless you are a single viewer which I was. I had no one to share the murder of a hermit with, nor the behavior of two gay bistro owners. And yet book and game served up relatively equal amounts of suspense and human error. An artist’s moral dilemma was deeper and more affecting than the quarterback’s. For one thing, the artist had a moral dilemma. In both a novel and a football game I always stay to the end. Such staying seems to bear a lesson for life. The novel holds more complexity it seems to me. The novel leaves more to think about than the game, but then I may simply be favoring a personal preference.
In graduate English studies you read the best that has been thought and said over time by many voices, the voices of wisdom. A doctoral student reads very little contemporary literature. Immersion in good, current writing is quite refreshing after years in the museum of literature. One reads contemporary for pleasure, exposure, diversion, perhaps relevance to the times. Penny’s world of Three Pines, Quebec, cannot be found on any map. And the level of mystery far exceeds what could be found in a real village of similar size. And there are not in the real world many towns with a crazy poet trailed by a pet duck wearing a raincoat. All the characters are exquisitely drawn as are their crimes, misdemeanors and foibles. The reader loves them and feels their emotions in ways impossible of football players.
Louise Penny’s The Brutal Telling is a wilderness, real and figurative and there’s no concession stand in sight. David Milliken