When Books Fail Us

There’s a sacred, unspoken expectation among Readers that the right book will come along at the right time. In fact, as Alain de Botton wrote, “Most of what makes a book ‘good’ is that we are reading it at the right moment for us.”

Often we aren’t aware that the right book is needed until providence has placed it in our hands. Then comes that moment–that chapter, that sentence, that word–that reminds us why we’re Readers in the first place: because literature is transcendent; restorative, even.

Inevitably, Readers learn to rely on this moment. We put our trust in it, and expect the right book to always come along at the right time.

Then, on the day when we need it most, it doesn’t.

A month ago, my wife underwent surgery to remove a tumor that was attached to a cluster of nerves near the base of her spinal cord. Mercifully, the tumor was benign. The surgery involved only minor complications, and today she’s healing at an incredible rate. In the grand scheme of things we were very lucky. But these past few months have been incredibly difficult. Incredibly difficult.

In the last 30 days I’ve picked up (and put down) more books than I could possibly count, each time looking for some sort of explanation as to why this had to happen to the person I love the most. I didn’t find it; not even a comfort. As a result, I haven’t been able to read much of anything. These are the first words I’ve written since the surgery.

It’s not that I’ve had nothing to say, it’s that I’ve been bitter (and more than a little heartbroken, if I’m being honest). As crazy as it might sound, it feels like I needed a friend through all of this and that friend just wasn’t there for me.

Even now, as I write this, I’m poring over notes and passages I wrote down in the past few weeks, trying to find some quote, some morsel of wisdom that might bring all of this into focus. I’ve tried to shoehorn a connection between this and my reading of Gustav Janouch’s Conversations with Kafka for three weeks now because, well fuck, I had to try something.

I guess my sad realization is that I can’t always find truth through literature. Sometimes I just have to will my way through hard times on my own. Or with the one I love. Sometimes it’s no one’s responsibility but my own–especially not strangers in books who are more often than not dead–to put my life in its proper context. Oddly enough, if I’m able to do that, I more than likely have books to thank for it.

16 thoughts on “When Books Fail Us

  1. I don’t want to read and not comment, but afraid any comment will sound trite. Sorry in advance. I felt that reading let me down in my darkest hour too and you’re right, you can’t force it. It’s like when you’re single, and annoying people tell you you’ll find someone when you stop looking. It’s annoying but true. I started my blog in the aftermath of said dark hour + massive reading slump.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What’s interesting is that as soon as I wrote this, I started reading again. Once I aired my grievance, and the cat was out of the bag, reading came easy again. It helps to talk it out, I guess. Even if you talk into the ether 🙂 There might actually be something to the whole “stop looking and you’ll find someone” concept. That’s how my wife found me, coincidentally.

      Thanks for sharing, Laura.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah… I’m 100% off Twitter, that’s the most important thing! Also 100% off Instagram, about 80% off Youtube, and uh…. 50%ish off blogs haha. Lesser evil, etc


  2. Rick, I’m so sorry about this difficult time (but so glad your wife is recovering!). And it is so very hard when what you love can’t help you navigate through pain that the person who you love is experiencing, not to mention your own pain.

    I found that reaching back to books I’d already read was a little bit helpful (not re-reading them, just recalling them); reading poetry sometimes helped to shape what I was feeling into a recognizable form; and then years later new books or poems would spark an association and help me understand the experience in retrospect. But I’ll tell you, I can’t recall a single novel I read during the worst year of my life. Maybe I didn’t read any, but that seems unlikely.

    Sending all my best wishes to you and yours.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m with Laura here – it’s so hard to find the right words for things like this. But I hear you. I’ve felt that way too and I’ve been on both sides. Sometimes a book has been a life saver and sometimes you are left alone. I’m so sorry for what you and your wife have been through. So happy to hear she’s recovering well but I completely understand that positive results after the fact don’t erase all the fear and pain that surround the whole situation. I’m glad to see in the comments that re-reading an old favourite helped. Hoping there are plenty of wonderful books in your near future and lots of happy moments for you and your wife coming out of a darker few months.


    1. The worst is certainly behind us. The big thing now is finding the positives, really. Learning some lessons, not taking things for granted. Easier said than done, but what else can you do?

      And yes, I’ve gotten over my reading funk for sure. Finished an old favorite and just started a new book and it’s wonderful.


  4. Just reading this now, Rick – sorry for all the stressful stuff you were dealing with. And I’m very glad to hear your wife is on the mend! I think what you said at the end of your post is so true – we may not be able to count on reading during our darkest times, but our darkest times might be a little easier, and ourselves a little bit tougher, because of all the things we’ve read in the past.


  5. I’m just catching up on this blogging life stuff as it seems like it’s been that kind of year for many of us.

    I’m glad to read through the comments to see that the act of writing this post was a big part of helping you out of the dark place.

    I’ve had two times where reading deserted me – one was during a bad time and the other was during an extremely happy, although unsettling, time. There was no space in my head during those times, for a story other than my own.

    It was a relief to finally get out of my own head and back into reading other people’s stories when the phases passed!

    It’s hard not to sound trite, but times like you’ve just been through, tend to lead to moments of gratitude and even greater empathy. They also help to remind us of what’s really important in life.

    Delighted to hear that your wife is on the mend and that you are back on track 🙂


  6. Hi Rick, thank you for your kind words on my blog on this subject.

    And boy, your last paragraph here reeeeeally resonates with me. You articulate the struggle very well.


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