The Art of Love: Celebrating Wuthering Heights for National Book Month
I am a writer. This means that I am also – by nature, inclination and disposition, with everything in me – a devoted reader. Since the time I was a young girl sneak-reading under my blue-and-white checkered Mickey Mouse and Pluto covers with a flashlight, devouring everything from Archie Comics and “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, to the “Sweet Valley High” and “Flowers in the Attic” series, books have been my co-conspirators in life. They have been, at times, companions, friends, heated debate partners, gentle witnesses and yes, also very much like lovers.
I don’t mean to imply that books gave me something their human counterparts did not, or that I irretrievably escaped into them (though I have at times), but that the responses they evoke speak to the ability of the written word to generate the unfurling passions that also infuse and can inspire our interpersonal relationships.
Increasingly, I’ve come to believe that this is the greatest power of books, and of all the arts: to ignite our emotional selves by seeping into the deepest, most generative parts of us. We’re starting to understand, in contemporary science, that emotions drive the way we think and reason; our thinking minds are very much guided by our emotions, as elusive, fleeting, seemingly irrational and enigmatic as they might be.
I was raised, and I believe many of us are, to value my logical and pragmatic sides, and to keep my emotions “in check” in both personal and professional dealings. Looking back on any given year of my life, though, what do I remember more, the reasons behind the day-to-day decisions I made, big and small, or how I was feeling when I made them? Do I remember what I ate for lunch when I was in high school, or how uncomfortable I felt in my own skin sitting in the cafeteria? Do I remember the content of my university essays and business reports, or how satisfied I was with my work, or the feeling of obsession I developed for the subject matter?
I often think in images. When our nature as humans comes to mind, I see beings of light, and within this vision of us, I see tiny, particle-sized bubbles filled with emotions and memories. The memories have a sort of substance – there are images and sounds, for instance – but these too, are laden with emotional content, which I see as colours. What’s inside these emotion-memory bubbles is potent: it makes and remakes us daily, and forms the basis of everything we put into the world. The world, then, is a kaleidoscope of our enmeshed memories and emotions in action.
Where do these come from? When we start to examine our habit patterns, our tendencies to get sad, or angry, or feel rejected or abandoned, we ultimately realize that some of our core emotions are very deeply ingrained. It might feel like they are thousands of years old, and they might bring us at least as far back as childhood, when we were pure and magical emotional beings, pre-cognitive, that is, before reason could grab its hold on us. Uncovering and then observing and letting go of our largest and most impactful emotions is a life’s work, and I would argue that this kind of work is the very life blood of the artist.
There is artistry, too, in the active participation required to take in an artwork, be it a painting, piece of music, or a book. At our most engaged, we are entering into true dialogue with the artist or with the artwork itself, meeting in a shared space where emotions can commingle, limits can be tested, and there can be explosive eruptions of meaning. Many argue that this is the place where art truly originates, is born, along with the person experiencing it.
Through this active dialogue we are forming and are being formed; we learn so much about ourselves in the mirrors and teachers the most glorious artworks can be.
This is why, in choosing from the vast selection of books I’ve read over the years, up to and including my recent preoccupation with the Buddhist teachings of Pema Chödrön and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I’d have to say that Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” stands out as a beacon. I read it ages ago, when I was an awkward-banged, braces-encumbered teenager reading stomach-down on my bed in a room whose dusty rose walls I hated (though I chose the colour), flanked by posters of the Beatles, Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” and Dylan Thomas quotes (“Rage, rage against the dying of the light!”), pausing constantly to obsess over my first crush to the strains of Air Supply’s “Making love Out of Nothing at All.”
I don’t remember more than the most basic plot lines of the book, any more than I remember the movie version I saw years later as a film student. I do remember my hand fluttering to my chest as I became swept away in the tempestuous love unleashing itself madly against a backdrop of moody moors, a combining of inner and outer storms I’d recently learned in English class was called “pathetic fallacy.”
I couldn’t tell you any of the characters’ names other than Heathcliff and Catherine, but I can hear, still reverberating in the chambers of my heart, the words,
“Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living! You said I killed you – haunt me, then!! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! only DO not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I CANNOT live without my life! I CANNOT live without my soul!”
(I didn’t Google this; capped words may be my interpretation.)
I remember being on the phone with my friend Jasmine, who was also reading the book, standing on my bed and swooning as I yelled these lines to her, placing emphasis on different words until we were satisfied that we found the perfect expression for the glorious torment and suffering that was sure to kill us, because who could survive in a grey, moor-less world after knowing (about) his kind of devastating romance and passion?
More than twenty years after reading it, I remember Heathcliff’s words the way I do the lyrics of all my favorite songs. I remember them because they were the progenitors of my capacity to feel, and also the perfect manifestation of this as yet hidden power. They turned me into a fledgling superhero battling to the death in the name of Love. They simultaneously sublimated my desires and unlocked a need in me to seek the life of passion and possibility they represented, a passion that begins with love and spreads, as love does, to everything else under the sun.
The older I get, and the more I realize that life is nothing without connection, empathy and compassion, the more I feel I’m indebted to the mysterious forces which led me to a love for words and artistic expression in the first place, and to those pivotal works of art around which I have, inadvertently or not, built my life.
A single phrase, musical note, dance move or textured, sculptural curve can make a beeline directly into our most formative consciousness, interacting with those tiny bubbles of memory-emotions we harbor, thereby creating new ones. How lucky we are to have art in the world, and to be such incredible, gifted and magical beings capable of living in the light of art that awakens, heals and transform us every time we engage with it. How lucky we are that we are art’s mirrors, works of art ourselves, lighting the world with our passion and love.
What? Why have I never thought of this before?
The ‘Read Every Book on your Shelf’ Project! The REBOYS Project?
Well, for one, it’s terribly daunting. I mean, who’s ever actually read all the books on their bookshelves? Or the night table by your bed, where many of them tend to migrate?
I can buy chocolate and have no problem devouring it, but when I buy a book, unless I consume it voraciously, right away, it becomes decoration and kind of ceases to exist the way it’s meant to be in this world: to be read and loved, just like it deserves to be. Like I do with so many of its friends, newly bought or borrowed.
I just wrote an article about the importance of reading actual books, and it was published on elephant journal. And I stand by every syllable I wrote there.
But I also realized, as much as I love reading and DO read, how have I managed to escape reading all the books I actually own, over and over in my life, no matter how many times I’ve purged and started over?
Habits are hard to break.
I love love love love books. In addition to actually reading them, I love holding them, flipping through the pages, smelling them, arranging them by aesthetic appeal, taking in the magic of typology and design. Give me a bookstore through Door A and any other store through Door B, and I’ll choose Door A every time (there are probably some exceptions, but I can’t think of them right now.)
I honestly don’t have too many weaknesses when it comes to buying things, but books are utterly in a world of their own, in my “books” (ugh).
Before I upped and left my home in Canada for years of travel that have not yet ended, I gave away most of my furniture, kitchen stuff, shoes and clothes … you name it. But I couldn’t part with my books. Into box after box they went, and I currently fantastize about them in my parents’ basement. (thanks, Mom and Dad!)
I spent years and years cultivating and fine-tuning those bookshelves! They made my living room, and eventually a wall in the kitchen of my fairly small apartment what they were. They breathed life and living into my space.
No, I never quite read all of them. But I really meant to. And those I did read, some over and over, were alive with our joint history. I scribbled notes in them, had one-sided debates and love affairs with the authors, and simply had a long and full relationship with them.
How does one part with that?
Yet I did (de)part, first for Southeast Asia and India, and then for Japan, with my newly-minted Japanese husband (who doesn’t quite share my fixation with books).
We spent years shuttling back and forth between Thailand, Laos and India, and I managed what I thought would be impossible – to keep my “shelf” of books down to the two or three I was currently reading, which I would trade in for new books when I needed to. It pained me to let go of the books, some of which I came to hold dear, which happens all too often. Sometimes I’m afraid to read a book, which I think consider to become a part of my skin, and who parts with their skin?
I’ll admit I kept a few I deemed absolutely essential (like a book on Tibetan dreaming), and I eventually sent a few of these essentials “home) (thanks Mom and Dad, and in-laws!). I mean, there was no way I was going to be in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram bookstore and not buy a few treasures.
As I mentioned, I’m in Japan now, and not in Tokyo, where my beloved Kinokuniya bookstore (which I ‘met’ in Bangkok) resides. I have very little access to English-language books, and I’m trying to avoid collecting – for now. So, my bookshelf consists of the books we managed to amass in our last weeks in India (slightly more than a few), along with some books we sent to my husband’s parents over the years, and ones I Amazon-ordered before a trip to see family in the U.S. last year – oh, and my parents gave me a few from their collection while I was there. And oh – I have managed to find a few here, as it turns out …
Yes, it’s a pretty meager shelf of books – and I’ve successfully persisted in my habit of not reading most of them. I skim, I read chapters, but my Internet-addled brain (and Internet-based job, which I do from home) have left my head swimming with half-read articles, stories and the like.
Though I far precede the era of reading on phones, tablets, Kindles and whatever, my brain is slowly starting to move in a direction away from delicious full-book reading, and more into snippet consumption.
I don’t like it. I want to read my books, slowly, savoring them like fine wine, without a care in the world, with full capacity to lose myself in the moment.
And that’s why I’m starting this project. I will read every book on my shelf, start to finish. It may take a while. I hope it doesn’t take that long. And of course, since I’m a writer and I like sharing, I’ll write about it. I would love to see people all over the world embracing this project, and forming a community where we can reclaim our power to read-read – and to remember how delightful it is.
And what an accomplishment it would be, to actually self-educate and entertain with a collection of books we ourselves have curated for this very purpose!
We have created our own inbuilt entertainment unit, and cast it aside like yesterday’s news! And then we claim we’re bored!
How great would it be to re-visit our years-long curation project, and remember bits and piece of who we were then, who we are now, what we like and don’t like, and how we’ve changed?
How great to have a reminder of what we’d like to keep reading and what we are no longer interested in?
Let’s not waste years of book-collecting, or the actual books themselves. If we really don’t like them, we can give them away, so this is effectively a book-cleanse as well as an enriching, even enlightening experience!
I’m excited now. And I’d love for you to join me, and Read Every Book on your Bookshelf!
Here are the rules:
1) Walk over to your bookshelf.
2) Remove dust if necessary.
3) Take a book off the shelf.
4) Read it!
Am I saying, don’t buy any new books until these are done? Hmm. I’m saying try. At least be very aware and mindful of the fact that you still have a lot of other books you will joyfully be getting through, and wonder to yourself (out loud, if need be), if yet another book is necessary at this point.
Am I saying, stop reading anything online? Nope! Just make time, ideally each day, to sit down, maybe with a nice cup of coffee or tea, and enjoy the book from your shelf!
Am I saying, stop reading what you’ve got on Kindle? Well, no … but let’s start with the library that came first!
Any questions/comments? I’d love to hear from you!
I came to Paulo Coelho reluctantly, though I couldn’t tell you why.
But there he was, dotting the backpacker circuit of Southeast Asia, in nearly every guesthouse I passed through, squeezed into crammed shelves, falling apart under bamboo side tables, half-wildly torn and soggy under beer glass condensation.
Always in need of reading material, and craving a break from reading on my laptop, I found myself inching closer and closer to Coelho’s well-read body of work.
One by one, I started reading his books and falling into his lyrical phrasing and optimistic, oneiric spiritualism. I wouldn’t say I became hooked. It was more of a lingering, intermittent and sometimes dysfunctional relationship—and periodically, I would keep coming back for more.
Regardless of how I felt about everything I read of Coelho’s, I will be forever grateful to him for how interwoven his work became with such a meaningful period of my life. These books allowed me to get swept away in his sandy, windblown parables, and occasionally brought me, slap-in-the-face-like, back to the present moment, where I needed to confront myself.
I’ll be totally honest: I can’t remember right now which book it was that struck me with this amazing quote, and I also can’t swear that it’s a direct quote and not a paraphrase. In fact, that memory is a fallible and very creative thing ties into the quote that inspired me to write this.
I do remember the book was about a man who lost the one woman he really loved and was trying to figure out how to get her back, and how to get to the bottom of who he really was, that he could have loved and lost like this.
He asked a wise person for advice and was told to forget everything, to forget his biography and just be—to discover himself in this way, in the shining light of the present moment (my interpretation).
The thought panicked him (and me, by proxy).
How can I stay myself if I willingly forget all that I was? he asked.
And he was told: the important stuff stays.
The important stuff stays.
I’ve had similar fears to the man in the story. I’ve long tended to hold on to too much: too much pain, negativity, doubtful feelings…and I’ve suspected that this has led me not only headlong into life via the modes of confusion and uncertainty, but also to my slowly unfolding journey of turning this around.
During my long travels, I may not have been searching for that one person, that emblem of love and self-fulfillment, of the protagonist of this book (though maybe we always are, in a way)—but I was, without a doubt, reaching for something exciting and elusive. And I was certainly trying to be in two places at once—in the past that was always dancing on my shoulders, never far away from my deepest emotions, and also in a long-awaited, mythical future where everything would fall beautifully together.
Of course, we can’t be in two places at once, any more than we can ever be in back the past, or ahead in the future.
How does one really start over, though—as much as we really want to at the very core of our being – without fearing a complete annihilation of self?
When I read that the important stuff stays, it seemed too simple to hold onto, but so deeply, profoundly sensible at the same time.
Nothing of value will ever be forgotten because there’s no malevolent force out there that wants you to suffer. We make ourselves suffer. If we can only eliminate the causes of suffering—the clinging, the grasping—there might well be a treasure of stuff (we are the treasure!) there for the taking.
We need only to lighten up, literally, metaphorically, and enjoy the proverbial ride, and know that we will not be completely annihilated if we do so.
What’s left behind, we don’t need. What remains, remains. And this remainder will always be enough.
*Postscript: I’ve looked into it now, and the book is called The Zahir: A Novel of Obsession. Recommended!
*Note: This has just been published on elephant journal – and it’s gone viral! Thanks to the people over there for helping me share my words; they work so hard and do great work!