What’s in your brain?

I just finished reading Towelhead, by Alicia Erian. This is a wonderful and disturbing novel. It is a coming of age story about Jasira, a 13 year old Lebanese American girl. I like coming of age stories, and I like this one too, but her sadly dysfunctional family and predatory neighbor gives it a decidedly dark twist.

This isn’t a book review. You can find all you want online and I don’t like to tell too much about a story, anyway. What I want to talk about is how the book affected me. This has happened to me before, and I’m wondering about other people’s experiences. I read the book over the course of two days, staying up till 4:30 am then waking up to finish it in late morning.

Once I finished the book, I got busy with my task of the day – more book packing. I sorted through two shelves of books but I found myself feeling sluggish, so took a quick break to take Bodhi out. Standing outside in the yard, I felt a wave of sadness come over me. I thought it might be related to packing and spending too many hours alone. I came in to the apartment, wandered around the living room and kitchen for a few minutes, but couldn’t get focused.

It took me another half hour to realize that my feelings were directly related to the book. What I was feeling was not sadness about leaving, but deep grief for the character in the book. The first person descriptions were so realistic that I felt a bit like I had been sitting with the main character, as if she were a real person. Except that the book covered a good bit of time in (for me) just two sittings and my empathy bag was overflowing.

I read a study recently that described the ways that the brain is essentially unable to tell “real life” from television, movies and books and I knew just what they were referring to. (a link to a NYT article about this research – I think I read about it in a book but this explains the idea) I spoke to some people about it and we all joked about feeling like characters from TV shows in particular feel like friends of ours. We talked about “missing” characters that left shows and being sad at the end of a series. 

No one else that I spoke to talked about books, though. I remember reading a book about a woman in a moderately bad relationship – no physical abuse but her partner consistently undermined her – and during that time I found myself rather short tempered with my own partner. It wasn’t until the book was over and the character’s issue was resolved that I realized my snippiness was related to the book.

I’d be interested to hear about other readers’ experiences. The one’s I noticed in myself of have mostly been sad/angry feelings. What books have moved you so much so that you carried those feelings around with you? Have you read books who’s joy or humor perked up your mood?

I’m especially interested in books that cheer you up. The other two books I’m reading at the moment are Death at SeaWorld and Poe and Fanny – I might need to read something else first.

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