Literature

The Pleasure and Sorrow of the Reader’s Life

One of my favorite poems is from the Victorian writer Robert Browning Hamilton. In eight simple lines he captures the essence of life:

I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chatted all the way
But left me none the wiser,
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow
And ne’er a word said she,
But oh the things I learned from her,
When Sorrow walked with me.

The late literary critic Harold Bloom, from my own alma mater Yale, said that one of the chief reasons to read was for pleasure. We read for pleasure. But Pleasure leaves us none the wiser, despite all she had to say.

I agree, in part, that we read for pleasure. But the books that leave an indelible imprint on us are not works of Pleasure but works that elicit sorrow—sorrow, sadness, when we finish reading. Having spent that little sliver of time called life with a certain book and its characters, we close it and feel a certain tragedy in having completed it. These characters whom I got to know, this story that I became part of, gone—except in what I learned from it.

As many of you know, I’m a literary critic and avid reader. And whenever I finish a moving book, a book of great thought, consideration, and insight, I am often left with a certain sadness when I read the final sentence, pause, and close the book. Yes, I may have had joy or pleasure when reading it. But at its conclusion, the pleasure of the past few days, or week, pending on its size, is washed away in a sea of sorrow.

It is not necessarily the case that the book made me cry because of its ending. Rather, inside my soul I feel a sorrow in having completed this little pilgrimage: Doctor Zhivago, War and Peace, Moby-Dick, Great Expectations, Sense and Sensibility, East of Eden, The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, etc. Having sojourned with our author and their characters, I am reminded that I am plopped back down into the earthly soil to continue my own pilgrimage—leaving behind those characters I joined for a few days, but knowing that they are also with me until rest eternal, speaking to me, crying with me, and laughing with me on the windy and lonely road.

Contra Harold Bloom, if we don’t experience a little modicum of sorrow when we close the book we have just read, that book will fade into the trash bin of history. The books that cause us to feel something deep within us, sorrow, are the books that remain with us until we too are buried in the grave.

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