The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is in the middle of its annual “Canada Reads” competition to pick a book all Canadians should read. This year the contest focuses on books that break barriers. Sure, I think, encourage people to read books that might challenge their assumptions and invite an alternative perspective. Except I sort of think this invitation to burst or break (such violent language for such a gentle activity: or is it?) is what all fiction is about, what all reading is for: the space to inhabit perspectives in ways that make you examine (if not *break*) those assumptions you hold that keep others at a distance, or to simply (simply?) travel an unknown story as more than a tourist, but less than a local.
Certainly Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman explores how reading creates this space of exploration. In a powerful passage on the nature of evil, our narrator foregrounds the responsibility that comes with reading, noting “We all try to explain away the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib or the Sabra Massacre by denying that we could ever do anything so horrible. The committers of those crimes are evil, other, bad apples; something in the German or American psyche makes their people susceptible to following orders, drinking the grape Kool-Aid, killing indiscriminately. You believe that you’re the one person who wouldn’t have delivered the electric shocks in the Milgram experiment because those who did must have been emotionally abused by their parents, or had domineering fathers, or were dumped by their spouses. Anything that makes them different from you. When I read a book, I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved” (100 – emphasis added). Yep, that’s it (for me), that’s why I read (or one of the big reasons).
More than an opportunity for introverted exploration, however, the book posits that reading might be enough to make a meaningful life. Our first person protagonist, Aaliya, is a divorcee in Beirut. Deemed “unnecessary” by her family, she takes a job in a bookshop and spends her life reading during the day and translating – from translations – one book a year into Arabic.
[An aside: Beirut is cast as a complex character in the novel, seen as “the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is” (88). An aside to the aside: you get a sense from these sentences of the beauty of the writing, right?]
Her work of reading and translating attempts a response to the existential question of what makes a life meaningful and worth living. We get glimpses at different points in the novel of others for whom this question has not been satisfactorily resolved: suicides, isolation, destruction. Those, too, for whom the task of making meaning – through the creation of art or parenting, for instance – is insufficient to satisfy the existential question (cue more suicide). For Aaliya the response of reading and translating, while salutary, is, likewise, insufficient. She thinks “Nothing in my life is working. Giants of literature, philosophy and the arts have influenced my life, but what have I done with this life? I remain a speck in a tumultuous universe that has little concern for me. I am no more than dust, a mote – dust to dust. I am a blade of grass upon which the stormtrooper’s boot stomps” (159).
The conflict of the book – such as it is – focuses around this question: how can we individually make meaning of our lives? How might reading and stories help us in this pursuit? (Perhaps its as Aaliya suggests in one of her bleaker moments that “In order to live, I have to blind myself to my infinitesimal dimensions in this infinite universe” (277).) So while there is this quasi-conflict, one complaint I have with the book is that it’s more a meditation on the beauty, power and influence of reading than it is a complete narrative on its own. Sure there’s a narrative arc, conflict and character development, but these elements seem a secondary interest to the purpose of exploring the magic of words. So I’d give the strong caveat that while I encourage you to read this one for its masterful meditation on the importance of reading and of story, I’d begin reading with lowered expectations for a nuanced or intrinsically satisfying narrative.