BY MARIA POPOVA
“It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it.”
Galileo believed that books are our only means of having superhuman powers. For Carl Sagan, a book was “proof that humans are capable of working magic.”Proust considered the end of a book’s wisdom the beginning of our own. For Mary Oliver, books did nothing less than save her life. The social function of great literature, the poet Denise Levertov insisted, is “to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.”
The transcendent mechanism of the awakening that books furnish in us is what Anaïs Nin (February 21, 1903–January 14, 1977) explores in a beautiful entry from The Diary of Anaïs Nin: Vol. 1 (public library).
A generation after Kafka wrote to his best friend that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” 28-year-old Nin writes in December of 1931:
You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book (Lady Chatterley, for instance), or you take a trip, or you talk with [someone], and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. The symptoms of hibernating are easily detectable: first, restlessness. The second symptom (when hibernating becomes dangerous and might degenerate into death): absence of pleasure. That is all. It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it. They work in offices. They drive a car. They picnic with their families. They raise children. And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death.
With a thankful eye to D.H. Lawrence — whose writing, she believed, first awakened her in this fashion and whom, in a gesture of gratitude, she made the subject of her first book — Nin adds:
Some never awaken. They are like the people who go to sleep in the snow and never awaken. But I am not in danger because my home, my garden, my beautiful life do not lull me. I am aware of being in a beautiful prison, from which I can only escape by writing.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly numinous The Diary of Anaïs Nin: Vol. 1 with Nin on why emotional excess is essential for writing, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the elusive nature of joy, and how to truly unplug during vacation, then revisit Neil Gaiman on why we read, Rebecca Solnit on the life-saving power of books, and James Baldwin on how reading changed his destiny.
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