“What impels the writer is a deep love for and respect for language, for literary forms, for books. It’s a privilege to muck about in sentences all morning. It’s a challenge to bring off a powerful effect, or to tell the truth about something.”
~Annie Dillard, “To Fashion a Text”
I’ve said it before: reading teaches us how to write. There are books I haven’t been able to read without a pencil because of lines so beautiful that I’m afraid of losing them if I don’t stop to underline. And when I look back, the passages I’ve marked are usually things that teach me about life. The best writing teaches us about life.
Right now I’m reading The Road (yes, I kept putting it aside for other books, but now I’m finally in it for good), mesmerized by its voice and often blown away by the broken beauty he captures in such a desolate and disturbing setting. Last night I underlined this passage:
He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever. (89)
And the night before that I marked this:
The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked holes in the sand for the boy’s hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them. (74)
These are the kind of passages that catch my breath as I read and compel me to stop and ponder the words. They make me want to catalog them, to thumb through every book on my shelves and type every underlined passage into this post and say, “Did you feel that? Do you see?”
But maybe you can’t. Maybe these have to be experienced inside story. All I know is that when I come across these profound bits of truth in fiction, I savor them like the best gourmet food. They illuminate the world in a new way, they make me marvel, they turn simple ideas into reverent ones.
There are plenty of books that I love just for the stories, that I own and savor and recommend to other readers. But the books that I cherish above all are the ones that I’ve underlined, the ones full of profound truths.
As Annie Dillard says, it’s a challenge to write a book that way. I hope I’m up to the challenge, though. My biggest goal as a writer is to give back like this: to catch a reader’s breath with an idea worded so well that it pays tribute to the writers who have shaped me, like the sincerest thanks.
What truths do you glean from fiction? What books have caught your breath with beautiful passages?