Saturday, September 3, 2011

I Read to Cry

I've been thinking a lot about "I Read," a song from Stephen Sondheim's musical Passion.  As I recall, it comes two-thirds of the way through the show -- Fosca and Giorgio get a bit closer after he loans her a book he particularly loves.  She reads it, but when he suggests she keep it longer to meditate on the characters, she demurs.  She tells she doesn't read to think, she reads to dream.  Here are the lyricsAnd here's a video of Donna Murphy, the original Fosca, singing it.

When I saw Passion in 1994 with Eric Besner (a fellow law student at the time -- and a Sondheim scholar: here's his article for The Sondheim Review on the revisions to Passion during the previews), I was blown away.  (I actually liked it better in the raw state before Sondheim's changes -- but that might just be the result of how it affected me emotionally at the time.)

Fosca is the ultimate producer of Magical Thinking Romance Theater.  That's my term for the sort of imaginary romantic relationship where one person doesn't know the relationship even exists.  I wish I could find it now, but I saw a T-shirt in law school that said, in effect,
Before he can wine and dine you,
Before he can fall in love with you,
Before he can propose marriage,
Before he can father your babies...
He has to call you!

Leap-frogging over inconvenient truths, assuming that there's more than casual friendship in someone's smile, envisioning a rosy future when the other person has other plans -- that's all evidence of staging a Magical Thinking Romance Theater production.

I used to be a lot more active in Magical Thinking Romance Theater myself, a long time ago, so I know the signs.  But by the time I saw Passion, I lived less in my head.  Seeing Fosca -- this plain, awkward woman in mid-19th century Italy who imagines herself madly in love with a gorgeous army officer -- wear her heart so blatantly on her sleeve gave me a frisson of recognition.

Then she sings about why she reads:
I do not read to search for truth
I know the truth, the truth is hardly what I need.
I read to dream.

I read to live. In other people's lives.
I read about the joys, the world
Dispenses to the fortunate,
And listen for the echoes.

I read to fly, to skim -
I do not read to swim.

I really know what she's talking about.  It's not just the preference for happy endings over variations of a misery the reader knows too well.  It's the way reading can take us out of our own lives, waft us over the the ugliness of reality and give us a few hours in a prettier, easier place.

But there's one aspect of reading that Fosca didn't touch on: the cathartic read.  Some of my favorite comfort reads are ones that make me cry.

I don't think that's inconsistent with Fosca's reading style.  We want relief from our own unhappiness, and we can get that both from reading about other people's happiness, but also from discharging a little of our own pain while reading about their fear of loss.

Of course, this only works for me if there's a happy ending.  I don't want to close a book and still feel bad about the characters.  It also doesn't work for me if the book is emotionally uninvolving, perhaps because the protagonists are annoying or the prose doesn't prompt that cathartic response.  I would imagine that this is very reader-specific.  The books that reliably make me cry might well leave other people dry-eyed, and vice-versa.

Plus, I like to cry.  I expect a lot of people don't enjoy it as much, rather in the way that some people don't enjoy being scared on roller-coasters.

Just more proof that what we read, why we read it and why we praise it, can be so personal.


  1. Barbara here--
    Oh gee thanks Magdalen(heavy sarcasm) for giving a naturally weepy woman(moi) another excuse to shed tears. I vaguely knew about the Sondheim, but then you made me click on the link and then on the finale!
    A Box of tissues later....
    I don't need to read the whole book in order to cry!! I know where all the scenes are that make me cry, so I can do a 'Reader's Digest' abridged flit through a particular title. And it is a tribute to the author's skill and my 'weep gene' that reading just 3-4 pages will bring on the tears. Every!single!!time!!!
    I don't do this often, but I do know exactly why one would want to!
    ps--my current Kleenex winner is in Lois M Bujold's Paladin of Souls: Ista(our heroine) meets the Father of Winter(a god personified), has a chat with him, and then conveys his message to Arhys. That whole set of scenes just rips me up, in a good way, every single time.(and I have lost track of how many times I have read the book all the way through).
    And you are soooooo right. Reading is an individual experience.

  2. Barbara -- Funny story: Eric (my Sondheim scholar friend) took me with him to both the early preview production of Passion and the final preview performance before opening night.

    Like many ardent fans, Eric *just happened* to make a recording of each performance for his own collection. I gather that he can hear me sobbing during the earlier performance!

    I'm off to find that Bujold. I've read the two (Shards of Honor & Barrayar) with Cordelia Naismith, but haven't started the long slog with the son, Miles.

  3. Magdalen

    Paladin of Souls is the second of Bujold's Chalion books. It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for the year in which it was published. Ista is sooooo wonderful--a 40 year old widow who had been considered 'mad' for a number of years. (No, she wasn't mad, merely God-touched and cursed)and she finds adventure, true love and so much more. It's wonderful!!
    Anyway, I once saw this set of books by Bujold (there are three loosely related books)described as 'speculative theology'. Paladin of Souls is a direct sequel to the very dashing adventure The Curse of Chalion. I dither (a lot!)deciding which is my favorite by Bujold. Sorry Miles, you are not in the race and Cordelia, you come in 4th.


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