“Some books are toolkits you take up to fix things,” remarked Rebecca Solnit, “from the most practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart, or to make things, from cakes to ships. Some books are wings. Some are horses that run away with you. Some are parties to which you are invited, full of friends who are there even when you have no friends…Some books are medicine, bitter but clarifying. Some books are puzzles, mazes, tangles, jungles. Some long books are journeys, and at the end you are not the same person you were at the beginning.” For Eudora Welty, the miracle of books was their ability to liberate us from the limitations of our own personality: “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” she said, but “the man who never reads lives only one.” Whereas for Joyce Carol Oates, reading was the sole means by which we could slip into “another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”
The humanizing power of books to infiltrate the ordinarily impenetrable barrier between “us” and “them” is what Mary Gaitskill ponders in her lovely essay “I Don’t Know Anymore,” one of forty six stunning pieces that compose Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process. Complied of the best essays from the Atlantic’s much-beloved “By Heart” column, Light the Dark asks literature’s leading lights one question: what inspires you? They then choose a passage that was formative to their development as writers. The result? A delightful trove of wisdom from authors as diverse as Yiyun Li, Khaled Hosseini, Andre Dubus III, Hanya Yanagihara, and Elizabeth Gilbert. As reassuring as good conversation and a cup of coffee, Light the Dark offers insight and inspiration not only to aspiring writers but to anyone who’s been enthralled by the imaginary world of books.
When asked what inspires her, Gaitskill chose a passage from Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina. Anna, a passionate, sophisticated woman, has just left her husband Karenin for another man. After getting deathly ill, she writes to Karenin begging for his forgiveness. At the height of her fever, she confesses to him, “There is another woman in me, I’m afraid of her— she fell in love with that man, and I wanted to hate you and couldn’t forget the other one who was there before. The one who is not me. Now I’m real, I’m whole.” For Gaitskill, what’s remarkable about this exchange is how both Anna and Karenin behave in way that’s totally out of character:
“Anna’s speaking about the decisions she’s made in the third person— as if the person who betrayed Karenin was a stranger. And she does seem to be transformed here, as though she’s become a different person. I was so surprised by that. I think of it as a very modern insight, Tolstoy’s idea that there may be two, or more, different people inside of us.
And it’s not just Anna. As his wife tells him she loves him, begging his forgiveness, Karenin transforms, too. The man we’d thought could never be anything but stiff and dull turns out to have this entirely different side to him.”
Though this moment gives us hope for the estranged couple, their reconciliation doesn’t endure: Anna never talks about the “other woman” inside her again. So which, Gaitskill wonders, is “the real Anna, and which is the real Karenin: the people they are at the tender bedside moment, or the people they become afterward?” Tolstoy never offers a definitive answer. Perhaps the regretful Anna who displays remorse for her wrongdoings, Gaitskill speculates, is the “truer part of herself.” Perhaps death has a way of dispelling the falsehoods we tell. Who knows?
What’s genius about Anna Karenina is the way it probes the complexities of the self. Like all great characters, Anna and Karenin reveal man is as multi-dimensional as a Russian nesting doll: he projects an outward public persona that conceals countless other selves. Rather than confine his characters to shallow and superficial categories, Tolstoy agrees with champion of the human spirit and paradox-embracing poet Walt Whitman’s belief that man is “large and contains multitudes.” Anna is both the unfaithful wife and the repentant cheater just as Karenin is both a spiteful husband betrayed and a man willing to forgive her. By granting us access to a character’s inner self, a self often at odds with the facade he presents to the world, books remind us every person has an interior life we’re not privy to. Like us, others suffer from fear and insecurity. And like us, others possess yearnings so intense they don’t dare be uttered. Literature’s humanizing power lies in its ability to bridge this seemingly unbridgeable abyss between self and other. As Gaitskill concludes, “the truest parts of people can be buried”— we must be more empathetic and largehearted toward each other.