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As Aristotle argued in Poetics, audiences are moved by great drama: in tragedy they experience pity and fear, which undergoes katharsis… this term of Aristotle’s is invariably mistranslated: it means not purgation or purification (the usual translations implying something is wrong with emotions) but clarification – coming to understand one’s own emotions in relation to the characters of the play, and oneself.
– Keith Oatley

I’m neck-deep in lit review right now. Heavy, fascinating, challenging scholarly work on the nature of reading and the social phenomena thereof and how we seek out what we read and what it does to us. How freaking intimate reading is, and how our choices of what we share about how and what we read – the people we seek and accept recommendations from, the people we talk to about what we’ve read – is so grounded in trust, and how trust and respect is so important. It’s humbling and sobering, which is the point.

So today I cranked through the entire cognitive psychology folder. And it’s interesting. One of the things that has come up over and over in my reading the last two days is the concept of optimal aesthetic distance, which is the idea that we seek out experiences (we’re talking about reading specifically here, and media to a lesser extent, but the idea originated in art theory) that are neither boring or offputting nor overwhelming or shattering, but right there in the middle – emotionally engaging but not so much that it doesn’t also leave room for thoughtful reflection.

But that’s not always the case, is it? There’s something like scratching an itch about reading an absolutely shattering book, about listening to a piece of music that brings you to your knees and makes you sob your guts out. It’s transformative; it can be a little traumatizing. It changes you, down deep, and you don’t come all the way back from that place. And I think there’s a kind of camaraderie among people who do seek that out, and we hold back and talk about it in hushed whispers and when we connect with someone we can really talk about those experiences with, wow, lifelong friendships are born, and that’s one of the reasons (not the only reason) that fandom is so powerful. There’s this whole fluid back-and-forth between author and reader, reader and text, reader and reader, there’s a kind of community of shared unreality that acquires something that is almost spiritual.

The first book I can remember that hit me like that was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is forever and always my favorite of the Narnia books and the essence of what Narnia means to me. The most recent one was Vilnius by Tomas Venclova; the most recent novel – the trilogy, actually, because it’s utterly impossible to separate them – the Broken Earth by N. K. Jemison.

What about you? What was the last book that took you to an emotional place you were utterly unprepared for? Do you seek that out or avoid it?

Published in intersections writing


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