Empathy, the way that we can place ourselves, imaginatively, in the position of the other person, is at the heart of what we do as readers, as people striving for a generous understanding of one another.
Reading by Moonlight Brenda Walker, Penguin, 2010
Sometimes it’s the right book at the right time. And sometimes it’s not. I picked up Brenda Walker’s Reading by Moonlight when it first came out, in 2010, and for some reason I didn’t get on with it. In fact, I took a set against it – that I remember – but I can’t remember why. In some circumstances, forgetting is an enjoyable quirk of getting older, so I was able to approach the book – my third for reading group this year – without prejudice. And laugh at myself for being so wrong.
I loved it. It is at the same time the story of Brenda’s cancer – from diagnosis to treatment to recovery and beyond – and the story of how, for her, stories reassured, guided, solaced and healed. All the praise on the covers is merited. It’s rich, generous, graceful and uplifting. As Jennifer Byrne says, “A graceful and moving hymn of praise to the power of reading”.
Moonlight is a measured, beautiful, elegant book. First We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson is raw and messy and more powerful because of it. I haven’t got it here with me; I sent my copy to a friend who is in the middle of an ‘anxiety spiral’ (Wilson’s phrase) hoping that it might act as first aid. I wish I’d had something like this to read a couple of years ago, when stress and insomnia combined to make a Frankenstein’s monster of overwhelming anxiety that ran my life. I might not have felt so alone; and I might have understood that the ‘beast’ was only trying to keep me safe.
I’ve only ever known Sarah Wilson from those vibrant photos in her “I Quit Sugar” books and…well…actually, ‘vibrant’ is a bit of an irritant for me. So, again, I can laugh at myself for being so very, very wrong. Smiley, glowing, vibrant Wilson actually struggles with major mental health challenges – not just anxiety, but bipolar disorder as well. I’m full of admiration for her courage in exposing herself like this.
It’s not a self-help book, but I am convinced that it will be enormously helpful to the anxious and the overwhelmed. In fact, when a man came into the bookshop last week to place an order (we’d sold out!) he told me that his psychologist had recommended it. Bibliotherapy.