I have many faults; some are known fully to me, and many, I am sure, are felt more expansively by others. But this one virtue I have in spades: empathy. Such a strongly-buttressed wall of my interior house, it has, ever since I was a child, prevented me from being able to read descriptions and view depictions of people being unkind to one another; in fact it is almost impossible for me to stomach any graphic rendering of suffering at all. I enter easily into others’ pain, a trait I can only attribute not to some oustanding moral fibre, but rather to my childhood gorging on fiction—which trains the mind and soul to inhabit the skin of another in a way that little else can.
It has always been difficult for me to comprehend the willing and cognizant visitation of pain on an innocent party: given a choice, why choose to hurt? So on that bitter cold Chicago afternoon, riding the schoolbus home from fourth grade, I did not understand why the young boy a few seats ahead of me cracked his window, casually tore pages out of a paperback, and sent them lofting away on the wind. That was someone’s book, I thought to myself, aghast and angry and pained, for my little mind grasped that he had perpetrated two sins: one against the book and another against its owner. To be fair, he first held the volume up high and asked if it belonged to anyone before cheerfully ravaging it. I remember the scene now as he brandished the tattered, faded copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair above his head, whole for the last few seconds of its life while he waited in vain for its owner to claim it.
I recall thinking quite vividly, How strange that he should have found a copy of the very book that I have in my backpack (for I was once again working my way through the Chronicles of Narnia). Thought number two: I’m so glad that mine is zipped away in the outer pocket. I didn’t think to doublecheck, naively gazing on at what I thought a complete coincidence.
When a thief takes something outright, to kill or to destroy, one is chagrined. But when a thief half-steals, with the half-permission of the thing’s owner helping him along, the burden of pain doubles with a measure of shame. At home, the vision still seared into my head of great chunks of paperback hurtling against the grey winter sky, I realized the pocket was unzipped after all. It was mine. He took mine. He ripped mine. He savaged mine. It had been mine. It was still mine, in all its pieces on the sidewalk blocks away. We didn’t have much money. The copy had belonged to my mother.
I’m sure I cried. My mother also felt my pain keenly (this makes sense: another great reader of fiction, she) and sensed the book’s pain sharply too. Soon she had ordered another copy. I remember her shaking her head and asking no-one in particular, why would someone do such a thing? As I write this I turn around and see on my shelf six faded and tattered volumes of the seven-book Chronicles, tucked into a shabby old case, and a glossy fourth volume nearby that doesn’t fit into the case. And together, they make me wonder: if he had read books, if he were in the practice of walking in the roads trod by make-believe people, would he have so readily hurt a living person and a living book all at the same time?
I will read to my child.