I’ve spent a good amount of the last few weeks trying to hold it together. This seems to be the case for most of us these days.
Something I’ve found distressing in the midst of it all has been my inability to engage with certain media. Watching TV is often difficult, despite the fact it’s a medium I want to work in. The same is true of watching movies. So often, the things most people use to relax stoke anxiety in me. They feel like work.
Reading fiction frequently stokes this feeling as well. It’s difficult to pick up a novel and turn off the noise in my head long enough to really engage with what’s happening in someone else’s.
Non-fiction has become a quasi-remedy for this, as it’s a form in which I have no aspirations. Chewing on a 10,000 view of the Marvel comics canon or medical findings regarding near-death experiences offers me a moment’s peace because it’s harder to find myself in these things.
I was listening to an episode of The Moment with Brian Koppelman the other day, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt expressed a similar feeling.
“I read non-fiction books now,” he says. “That’s what holds my interest. The last few books I read were like, a history book, a macroeconomics book, and a science book. And I find them fascinating. They’re page turners for me. And I try to open up a novel and it usually loses my interest. What the fuck is going on with me?”
Brian Koppelman responds immediately with some profound insight.
“Fiction, when you allow it to, fucks your shit up,” he says. “As you get older and you have children and you have things you can lose, the stakes are so great…Fiction is about death. That’s just what fiction is about. And so, it forces you to be willing to grapple with what matters in the deepest places, where it’s really so primal and almost beyond intellectualizing…[Fiction] is the grown mechanism. And growth is painful.”
“It’s easier to read nonfiction because you get to be smart,” Koppelman continues. “When you read nonfiction, it’s like, ‘Oh, this is grown-up stuff, I’m able to be smart.’ The truth is that’s not the grown-up stuff. The grown-up stuff’s the other stuff.”
The conversation then pivots to Camus’s The Stranger, a book Koppelman cites as one that touches a primal place.
Koppelman: The Stranger is the best. Go read The Stranger. It’s a really good time to read Camus.
Gordon-Levitt: I mean, I read it when I was probably twenty or something like that.
Koppelmen: Oh, yeah. It’s different at forty.
Gordon-Levitt: I bet…
Koppelman: Read it at forty.
This conversation speaks to my own reading experiences, as I’ve discussed on several occasions that sixteen was far too early to read The Great Gatsby. It was impossible for me to comprehend the weight of delusion, the sheer magnitude of the emotion, and the profound tragedy of a book like Gatsby so young. Despite all the posturing, no sixteen-year-old has the depth of soul for that book. It’s different for me now, at thirty. Just as I imagine it will be different again at forty.
But what strikes me most about this conversation is the sense that my shying away from fiction means I’ve woken up inside. I’ve reached a level of emotion I didn’t know was coming. I’ve assessed that my life means something, that I’m holding on for dear life during these turbulent times, that maybe I know now I’ve got something to lose.