The Baggage a Reader Brings

Over the years, I have occasionally been surprised by a comment of a reviewer of one of my books, when something I have written has obviously pushed a button in that reader…sometimes with a good result, sometimes not.

The truth is that all readers bring their own history to the time they spend in the author’s world, and a writer cannot predict what the result will be.

I now have an example of the reverse happening: I am bringing my own baggage to the table, and it is affecting deeply the way I regard an author and his story.

The book is non-fiction, a winner of the US National Book Award back in the 1970s: The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen. It remains a classic – the quintessential story of a physical journey matching a spiritual one – a man “in search of himself” or looking for meaning in life, in this case looking to Eastern philosophy and trekking through some of the most remote mountains of Nepal to a Buddhist shrine on the Crystal Mountain. [Hmmm – sounds almost like a fantasy cliche setting…]

The writing is often lyrical and moving; the story fascinating – yet I had a problem with it right from the beginning. Why? Because the author – having lost his wife to cancer – elects to go on this journey soon afterwards. He has children, including an eight year old son he leaves with friends.

And this is where my mother instincts kick in big time. He goes off to make what is a personal and therefore inherently selfish trip, from which – given the dangers and remoteness of the region – he might possibly never come back. Certainly he is out of contact with anyone back home for a number of months. And he does this to a boy of eight who has just lost his mother.

So when the cover blurb babbles on about spiritual adventure… soul striving … radiant and deeply moving, etc etc, the mother part of me is asking: yes, but how could you do this to your young son at this devastating time in his life? At whose expense was your spiritual journey?

I guess mothers tend to have a different perspective towards what constitutes an appropriate time for personal development.

I know my baggage is ruining the book for me.


The Baggage a Reader Brings — 8 Comments

  1. It would put me off too. A spouse dying is a truly terrible thing but the living have to come first. As a parent that means you cope because your child doesn’t deserve to be abandoned at such a devastating time. It would be a serious betrayal for any child, no matter how loving and understanding the alternative carer, for their remaining parent to desert them and the younger the child the worse the betrayal. Oops, that was a major rant but it really touched a nerve.

    To get back to the topic… When it comes to fiction I don’t think this sort of baggage applies – at least as far as I am concerned – but in non-fiction, when you are dealing with real people in real situations, judgments are inevitable because the writer is saying “This is what I did, said, thought.”
    As a result the reader is brought into the same position as they would be in an intense discussion and we can’t help but bring our emotional baggage with us in that situation. In real life we might chose to debate the topic or walk away to avoid an argument but in reading the only response available to is to put the book aside.

  2. I wouldn’t call it baggage. It’s a fair enough response to a man’s selfish soul-finding trip (right place, wrong time). Poor son! He had the added uncertainty of never seeing his dad again.

  3. Isn’t it great that a book can invoke this response? The character is fictional, so is the son yet the author is creating these feelings in the reader now – across time – in January 2008.

    And you can’t say it’s an unrealistic circumstance either as I’m sure there is (and will be) parents who are selfish in a way similar to the character in the book.

    It’s wonderful, I think, to be able to experiences these difference reactions / feelings and actually not be hurting real people.

  4. Anon – you have missed the point here. The book is not fictional. It is a true account of a living man’s real journey. He ended up as a Buddhist priest – and is still alive, although some 80 years old.

    The 8-year-old boy is now doing wonderful work as an environmentalist (his name is Alex if you want to google him), so I guess the experience didn’t ruin his life. But even so – I found it hard to empathise with his father, the writer, and his subject matter, even as I recognise the quality of his writing. So in a way, it wasn’t the book which impacted, but one fact which emerged from it to push my buttons…not a result a writer usually aims for.

    Argus Lou…luggage? Backpack? Suitcase? Lol…

  5. Mothers are the ones who still look after the kids when they themselves are sick. They hug their kids in times of trouble even when they want to hide in a room and scream. At least the good ones do. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of Dads out there who do the same thing, but in my experience, generally it’s Mum, gagging all the while, who cleans up the vomit while Dad stands back and says “I can’t face this”! OK, there’s a little bit of my baggage in there as well.

  6. I suppose I must have some nurturing instincts, because as soon as I reached the line mentioning the children I had a similar reaction to yours.

    But then after about half a minute my own ‘baggage’ of life observations and experience kicked in, and I wondered whether perhaps the man was so dysfunctional (either because of his bereavement or just anyway) that the rest of the relatives actually banded together and told him to push off and sort himself out, and that they would look after the children until he was fit enough to come back.

    It also intrigues me what the son (Alex) might feel about the book now.

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