It’s been many years since first saw the movie The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, portraying four teenage girls and their friendship. The story was based on a series of books by Ann Brashares, and though they were meant as “young adult” novels, the emotional profundity that seeped through the scenes and dialogue kept me going back to the movie. And so, after watching its sequel, I finally decided to read the last novel, which depicted the girls’ lives ten years from the last movie. If you haven’t read the books, then spoiler alert: one of the girl dies. The book is emotionally and mentally heavy as it walks the reader through the remaining three girls’ grief and struggle to cope with their seemingly flailing lives as well as the loss of their friend. The two nights I read the book, I felt inexplicably tired and depressed yet I could not tear away from its pages. I found myself wishing that I could read a novel without fully investing my feelings into it so that I didn’t feel so drained and nauseous afterwards, because somehow, unfailingly, I’ve not only dug up similar feelings of grief that I’ve experienced but have also acquired and must bear the burden of the characters I’m reading about. It’s such an incredibly taxing feat that moments after I turned the final page, a picture of a cat sent me weeping.
Many of my friends have created reading lists after college probably so that first of all they could later brag about all the New York Times bestselling books they’ve read but I guess, also so that they could keep track of the interesting novels they’d like to read. Though a writing major, I, surprisingly have not created such a list because I’m incredibly picky about my choice of novels. Frankly, if school hadn’t forced me to read the variety of texts, I would never have picked most of them out myself. I actively steer clear of science fiction, politics, autobiographies, biographies, highly ethnocentric, war, horror and cancer (or other diseases) novels. Yeah, I think that just about covers 80 percent of genres out there. But the thing is, I’ve read books in all those genres before (usually because I had to) and I’ve almost always enjoyed them. So why is it that I never voluntarily reach for them? I realized it’s because I’m scared. These are mostly things that I don’t naturally understand or am afraid of tackling, because of the horror I’ll be imagining from war stories or cancer stories, or the complexity in science fiction or biographies. I’m afraid to read 80 percent of the books out there because I’m afraid to feel the emotional baggage of someone going through cancer, or rack my brains over a mind-boggling space odyssey.
A friend from small town Iowa once told me, “I wish I was more cultured,” having heard of my expansive traveling record, and I hypocritically told him, “being cultured isn’t about how much you’ve done, it’s about how much you’re willing to try.” As I stared at my empty reading list, I felt that statement slap me in the face.
We can’t spend our lives surrounding ourselves with only the familiar and seek only the safe and comfortable. How often do we see a new thing and grope for something we can relate to or meet a new person and try so hard to cling onto only the things that are the same as you. It is, after all, only human nature, a psychological instinct to sort out our surroundings and make sense of it all. But how much more enriching would it be if we simply accepted the alien as just fact, and embraced it without question, delving headlong into the emotional and mental abyss without fear of recoil.
I’ve never doubted the knowledge that reading about diverse and unfamiliar things could provide, but I guess there’s something to be said about emotional knowledge, as well. The bravery to reach into the recesses of your heart and feel things that you otherwise wouldn’t. As I wrote down the name of the first book on my reading list, I found myself remembering the wise words of Reese Witherspoon’s therapist that gave me this newfound bravado and prayed that they would keep me afloat through war plagued novels: They can wound, confuse or delight you but “A feeling (thankfully) can’t kill you.”