“A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.” -David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
I began a book over a month ago that has been kicking my ass every day since I opened it. You can find the review for that book here, but in the meantime suffice it to say it is about war, and it broke my heart on every page, with every paragraph. It was in the middle of reading this book that I began Cloud Atlas.
I had no reason for doing so, other than the fact that I wanted to see the movie, and I needed a break from reading about the relentless horrors of war. But what I found in it surprised me: in reading Cloud Atlas, I found a reason to keep reading.
You wouldn’t think I would need a reason. In case I haven’t made it clear, I love books. I don’t love them like I love movies – I love them like I love people. They have the ability to reinforce me or to completely wreck me in the exact same way as people do (sometimes, if I’m honest, even more – I don’t put up the same defenses against books that I do with people). Nonetheless, despite loving books like I do members of my family, there are times in life when I cannot read them. It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while, when life seems too daunting, when there is too much pain right in front of me to risk encountering even more fictional pain, I stop reading.
When this happens next time, I am going to force myself to pick up Cloud Atlas. Because above all other things – above the lyrical prose, the brilliant structure, the clever pacing and the sheer epicness of the plot – Cloud Atlas is primarily a defense in reading. And not only reading, but connecting.
Society’s compulsion for fiction can be boiled down to one simple factor: the need to connect. Fiction offers a chance to connect – to people, periods and places – that you don’t need social skills, plane tickets, or a time machine to access. If you are reading this, a blog about writing about reading, chances are it’s because somewhere along the way you read something and felt immediate recognition: I get that. I’ve felt that. And now I know someone else does too.
The way in which Cloud Atlas speaks to this human impulse to connect is nothing short of brilliant, truly. He meticulously lays out each character’s story and then transitions abruptly halfway through to another story. What ties them all together is that each of these stories has some connection to the other. A composer from the 1940s reads the journals of an American notary from a century before. A journalist later stumbles across this same composer’s letters. That journalist’s story is turned into a manuscript, read by a publisher, whose story in turn is made into a movie. That movie is viewed by a slave far in the future, who is later deified by a people even farther into the future, after the world has burned itself down and restarted from scratch. All these connection points throughout history combine to make one point: you are not alone. Yes, you – the one reading this. You are not alone. You are part of something.
As it turns out, this is a message I needed to hear. It’s a curious thing, but it is usually when I want to be alone most that I most need the kind of connection that books offer. Because while a book can be many things – a temporary escape (“Books don’t offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw.” ), a journey (“…there ain’t no journey what don’t change you some.”), an attempt to give voice to the ineffable (“What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.”) or to get at an unreachable truth (“As many truths as men. Occasionally, I glimpse a truer Truth, hiding in imperfect simulacrums of itself, but as I approach, it bestirs itself & moves deeper into the thorny swamp of dissent.”), a chance to daydream (“. . .my dreams are the single unpredictable factor in my zoned days and nights. Nobody allots them, or censors them. Dreams are all I have ever truly owned.”) – above anything else, a book is just a steadily beating reminder that we aren’t alone here. That life isn’t a monologue, but a grand, chaotic ensemble show. That even the worst can be borne, if it comes with the knowledge that someone, somewhere – no matter how far removed they are from us – has borne it as well.
After reading this novel, I kind of wished I had left it to the end of Cannonball Read. It would have been such a fitting end to a year of reading, and writing about reading, to review a book that is essentially one long argument for the kind of pure, human connection that books offer. But as it turns out, now was when I needed it. Now, when my former home is tearing itself apart in the most senseless of conflicts. Now, when my current home is continues to ignore the massive, irreparable effects its decade-long war is having on a generation of men and women in favor of parsing the sexual conduct of one of its generals. Now, when war and rape seem to have joined the list of certainties formerly only occupied by death and taxes. Now, when I am just really fucking tired.
At the end of the day, a book is just a collection of words. But each of those words contain multitudes – enough to harm or to heal, to destroy or to rebuild. It can be a place to have your heart broken, or a place to recover. And sometimes, it can even be both.
Recommended For: Your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. I can’t imagine there’s anyone who wouldn’t like this book, is what I’m saying.
Read When: Anytime, but the more burnt out you are, the better
Listen With: Conveniently, it’s got its own score.