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If you are in the midst of pursuing a career as a professional reviewer, be it film, literature, fine dining, or craft sales in sub-Saharan Africa these ramblings are probably not directed to you (unless of course you take issue with my gross negligence of common grammar rules). No, this musing is about making reading an intensely personal experience. ‘Making the political personal’ became a rallying cry during the feminist movement, coined from Carol Hanisch’s essay The Personal is Political, and reappropriated by groups ranging from anti-war protestors to those seeking to overturn Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The original invocation is to remove the distinction between a political discussion and a personal one, when political issues become personal. And now I propose stealing the idea as a method to read quality fiction. Removing the arm’s length distance between the reader and the work. Surrendering to a book, a poem, even an author. Or immersion; immersing oneself in a plot, a place, a time.
This notion might seem commonplace. I often hear of experiences friends associate with films that hit close to home, that it became an intensely personal experience, that they lost themselves within the screen. For lovers of classical art, pieces can move them to tears. But for casual readers this may seem a bit strange, the removal of the objective relationship one has with a piece of fiction. No doubt it would require a powerfully gripping narrative. A character readily identifiable. A familiar setting or a period of time associated with a personal turmoil or ecstasy. I believe in all my favorite novels, novellas, short stories or poems, I became overtly involved with the work. More so than necessary and more so than the cerebral side of me is comfortable with. The latest book that I was emotionally moved by was A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Egan employed some themes that are universally touchy. Themes of loss, of aging and regret. While the themes made for a compelling read, it was certain passages that made this fictional work personal; passages commenting on desire and self preservation. Immediately I readily identified with the passage nodding to myself ‘yes, yes I know I know.’ It felt like the author was speaking to me directly. And I believe that’s what makes gripping, compelling fiction something more than a story. Sure, it can be economically worded, it can be fluid, the sentences crafty. It can evoke the senses, the text rich and emotionally generous. But when it captures an essence of the self, when the author is able to capture moments that transcend experience and age and income and every other barrier one brings to reading fiction, that’s when fiction becomes personal and that’s when fiction becomes magical.