There’s been a lot of discussion lately of the point of literature in a time like this, a time when so many people feel afraid and alone.
I’m not just talking politically, but in general, people are afraid. I’ll be the first to
admit that there was a good chunk of time recently when I felt so powerless and angry that I didn’t have something more useful to offer than my love for books.
Books are important, though.
I’m happy that I no longer feel as powerless as I did a few months ago. I’m still afraid, but I’m trying to feel less hopeless about everything. Some days I succeed more than other days.
But on the days when I feel utterly hopeless and no longer want to be where I am or who I am, I like to retreat into the imaginary worlds that I love.
One of those worlds that I love to retreat into again and again is the world that Rainbow Rowell creates in Fangirl.
In Fangirl, Cath goes to school with her twin sister but finds that while her sister thrives under the change, she is riddled with anxiety, both because she feels totally in over her head at the school and she worries of her father’s inability to take care of himself back home. However, what is possibly most crushing to her is when her creative writing professor tells Cath that fanfiction—which Cath writes avidly—is not “real writing.”
In many ways, Cath and I are very similar, so reading her was a sort of comfort for me. We entered college at the same time as our twin and felt that our twin was thriving in ways that we were not. We were so afraid of everyone else’s opinions, and that made it hard to make friends. The difference was roommates—Cath had one who was more standoffish initially whereas my roommate, Megan, was an instant friend and is literally the best person on this planet.
There’s one scene that especially stood out to me, and I joke that if I didn’t have Megan would have been too real. Cath is so afraid of going to the cafeteria and not having someone to sit with or doing something embarrassing that she rations out the breakfast bars she brought with her at the beginning of the year and doesn’t leave her room for meals.
It was interesting, though, because we were so similar, the differences between us really stood out. In many ways, Cath is braver than I am. She learns how to trust people and be emotionally vulnerable much more quickly than I was able to. She loves things with her whole heart and doesn’t put others down for what they love. Those things were hard for me to do at the start of college, and seeing Cath do them encouraged me to try harder and be a better person.
At the same time, she is a character who is afraid every step of the way, that that also, admittedly, helped me to relate to her even more. That’s what I think is especially powerful about Cath: she’s constantly afraid and is often afraid to express that fear, but she eventually does learn to ask others for help. She is not weak for it: she actually has a healthier and better life once she’s opened up.
She lets Levi and her sister in and allows them to help her, and I think that’s such an incredible message and such an incredible thing for girls to look up to.
There’s this thing that reading helps empathy, that crawling into someone else’s skin
helps you to better understand those around you, and I think that’s so true. But I think there’s also an extent that reading also creates a self-awareness, a realization that you are connected to those around you and that you’re not alone.