About 10% of my Reality is Experienced Through Books

Okay, maybe that number is a little high. But having just learned how to quantify seemingly unquantifiable things (true questions from Clinical Epidemiology: on a scale of 0-1, how much do you hate being late? [0.4] how much do you hate getting your clothes wet? [0.7 if I’m soaked!]) and if we adjust for the intensity of emotion I feel when I read books, I think 10% is not ridiculous.

Like right now, I made the questionable decision of starting Murakami’s 1Q84 during our very very tough physiology block, and all I want to do is read. I’ve realized this makes me kind of strange–I don’t really watch much TV or watch movies and there are a lot of things that many people my age have experienced that I’ve only experienced through books. I also feel really weird and detached from reality when I try to come back from a long block of reading. But, how can I resist?


So lately, my book-life (and my “real” life) has made me think a lot about poverty and social justice.

This story starts in December. Me sitting in a computer lab at school with one very kind friend who was keeping me company after everyone else had either left for break and/or didn’t still have assignments due for an elective class.

I read papers for around seven hours. But even in the brain-mush, for some reason reading that poor elderly Americans are twice as likely to not have any teeth was what punched me in the gut. A third, actually, are totally without teeth and what’s worse is that a lot of them don’t have dentures, so what do they eat? I have no idea.

A lot of people probably don’t care about this statistic. Maybe the thought is–well, they’re alive and they don’t have AIDS, right? So that’s fine? But tell me this: since when did being able to eat an apple become a luxury for the rich rather than a right that all humans should have? Or this: amidst an obesity epidemic that’s also laced with malnutrition (you can eat a lot of French fries and not get nearly enough nutrients) how do you expect people to eat fresh produce or non-processed foods without teeth?

Now this story (which I can tell as I write this is going to be rather long) fast forwards to January, when I met my friend G at church. He is one of that third, though not quite 65 years of age, who’s without teeth or dentures. He is homeless. He stuck out because everyone else at my church is educated and dresses like it, not just Sunday best but Yuppie Sunday best-ish, colored trousers and cloth ties and all. So I don’t really feel 100% fitting there either with my pseudo-high-school-I’m-not-really-sure style, and maybe that’s why I gravitated toward him right away.

Well, not really. The real reason is because something I really long for– the one thing I would change about my church and want to change if I can–is that as much as I’m too educated and I love other educated and over-educated people, I keep thinking about how Jesus wanted to invite the poor and homeless en masse to his banquet, and wants his people to do the same. I don’t think we do a very good job of that.

But G. I saw him and after we had talked that Sunday and a few more Sundays, I can honestly say he is one of my favorite people at church and it really terrifies me that (wait for it, it’s not what you expect!) he doesn’t have a cell phone because more than I’m afraid of him freezing (now he’s in a shelter, so things are actually safer on that front) I’m afraid he’ll stop coming to church one Sunday and then I won’t be able to get a hold of him at all and he won’t be in my life anymore.

Oh man, but even me with my kind of untrendy clothing, how dichotomous I am beside him and how odd we would all look if we were sprinkled with Jesus’ banquet guests of choice. Maybe the overzealous room scent in the hotel we meet in would be diluted then. Maybe us YUPs and YUGS (Young Urban Graduate Students!) wouldn’t feel 100% safe and comfortable but somehow I think that’s kind of the point of church.

But let’s back-track. Interlaced and interwoven with all these thoughts re: my real life is a similar mesh of thoughts re: my book life.

One, The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling:

casual vacancy

Two, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo:


All this facilitated by Boston’s wonderful libraries and the lightness of our December/January classes. The first was totally unlike Harry Potter and any comparisons are beyond apples and oranges so don’t even bother. The book’s most compelling character is a girl named Krystal Weedon, the daughter of an unknown father and a heroine-addicted mother whose only mentor in life passes away at the beginning of the novel.

The second is not actually fiction and describes true stories of life in a slum near the Mumbai airport in India. What I loved about it, and about Casual Vacancy, was the complex picture of poverty that both presented. The “poor” were not some saintly, innocent, nameless creatures squashed helplessly beneath the forces of oppression. Instead, something that Katherine Boo went to great lengths to demonstrate was that it’s very hard to be a “good person” in the midst of soul-crushing poverty. There were so many portraits in both books of the powerless duping the even more powerless, the poor taking advantage of the poorer.

And her other point was this–what is remarkable in these communities is not the rampant immorality, but that somehow people still sacrifice for others. The dog-eat-dog mentality is not entirely pervasive. Altruism survives.

All this reminds me of something Anderson Cooper said when he came to speak at OSU this past spring.

One of the students in the audience asked him how he dealt with the brutality he witnessed during the Rwandan genocide and the Somalian famine. His answer was surprising. He said our civility, sitting in our seats and listening to his talk, even gamely accepting when the talk’s organizers cut off the Q&A line at a certain point, was much more attributable to our environment than we wanted to admit. After traveling the world and witnessing countless wars and riots and revolutions, genocides and famines and states of instability, he said one thing he’d realized was how quickly removal of basic necessities like food, clothing, shelter, and work caused people and communities to descend into savagery.

I don’t disbelieve him at all because I see it in myself. It’s Lent now, and I will be the first to admit that I hate fasting with a passion because of what a bitch it turns me into. But that’s me, uncensored, and maybe the experience of calorie shortage so quickly causing incivility is a kind of solidarity I really need to experience. It gives me that much more awe and respect for people like my friend G, who manage kindness even on empty stomachs.

One thought on “About 10% of my Reality is Experienced Through Books

  1. this is only tangentially related but i wanted to comment anyways…. because you are lily and you understand me. I find that the more unhappy i am with aspects of my life, the more drawn i am into books and reading (particularly fiction) and that when my life is more full, i am not as interested in reading. i mean, i will still get obsessed with a book or series and finish it right away, but when i am unhappy i find book after book, or tv show after tv show, to spend as little time cognitively reflecting as possible. i think lent is showing me how empty i am making my life when i cram if full of fantasy books and don’t give myself time to reflect and take pauses between plot lines.

    interestingly, i haven’t finished the casual vacancy yet. i couldn’t. it wasn’t fiction for me, and it took me to the places i was trying to escape from. the social work aspect of it made me feel sick. 😦

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