Some among you may have wondered at my particular format. Why I open as I do. You shouldn’t be shocked to learn that it is in homage to a book. “Jane Eyre” fundamentally shaped my existence. The way that Currer Bell addressed his readers in both the preface to the second edition and in the work itself. When Currer states unequivocally that “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion.” while still actually being a person of deep religious belief and conviction, I noticed. It has done society great good for folks to not confuse what is normal with what is right. Folks on the path to FIRE know that conventional money beliefs are not for them.
Charlotte Bronte’s re-shaping of what is possible in a novel included directly addressing her readers. Sometimes with an almost out-of-place paragraph about the feelings and place of women in society, and sometimes by letting us know that “Gentle Reader, I married him.” (spoiler alert, but it’s been over a century).
I was reminded of my love of “Jane Eyre,” this summer by a New Yorker piece. The author had been gifted a session with a bibliotherapist. It seems that a bibliotherapist literally prescribes specific reading to help their patients. I was intrigued. I have done this for myself and others for as long as I could access the written word.
I worried that this would be another boring list of the 100 greatest novels, which don’t necessarily stand the test of time as well as the creators of such lists would like. However, the author clarifies “I’ve long been wary of the peculiar evangelism of certain readers: You must read this, they say, thrusting a book into your hands with a beatific gleam in their eyes, with no allowance for the fact that books mean different things to people—or different things to the same person—at various points in our lives.”
For me, “Jane Eyre” has meant a great many things. When I first found her as a lonely middle schooler in a very bad environment, I saw a way out. If I modeled myself after Jane and worked very diligently at my academics and always held very strictly to my sense of morality, I should be able to get out of my bad environment. When I re-read it through high school as a balm, it acted as a talisman. It defended me against many injustices that I had no other recourse to counter at the time.
With all of that, and having read it over twenty times, it is not my go-to recommendation for folks. It is a very particular sort of novel. It does not sit well for everyone. It will not mean the same thing for them. That does not mean that the novel is bad, but that it is not appropriate to the situation. And some folks are unwilling to read something so long.
In bibliotherapy, the therapist gives you a questionnaire detailing your reading habits among other things. The author continues,
“What is preoccupying you at the moment?,” I was surprised by what I wanted to confess: I am worried about having no spiritual resources to shore myself up against the inevitable future grief of losing somebody I love, I wrote. I’m not religious, and I don’t particularly want to be, but I’d like to read more about other people’s reflections on coming to some sort of early, weird form of faith in a “higher being” as an emotional survival tactic. Simply answering the questions made me feel better, lighter.”
The author is prescribed some fiction and nonfiction after a series of email exchanges with the bibliotherapist. The author reads them at her leisure and desire over the next few years. She finds the insights she gains helpful, but nebulous.
Personally, I’ve done this. Every time I need to branch out into a dormant portion of my life. I read.
I read when I wanted to come out, but was terrified. I read when I wanted to walk away from religion, but was worried that I was wrong. I read when I wanted to start a business, but felt inadequate to the task. I read when my heart hurt. I read when my heart was bursting with joy.
There are certain books I re-read in many seasons. I am never surprised when I see that “people who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others.” I know that whole worlds have opened up to me through reading. My friend Financial Libre has also written about this very topic. As I told FL, the books I’ve read in the past two years that have altered my thinking the most are Exile and Pride and this biography of Frances Perkins. While neither is fiction, they both helped me understand different ways of being. They’ve helped me be better.
Have any books altered your existence?