Two weekends ago, our company’s corporate services group took a short time out of the office for planning and team building activities. On the second day, our group chief challenged us to achieve specific goals before the year closes. One of the goals was for each one to read a book. Well, this is cool for me as I plan to read 25 this year anyway and I’ve read 14 so far. Yabang! But this is the catch: the book must be non-fiction akin to those found in the shelves of our corporate leaders.
When the reading challenge was rolled down, I was in fact already midway through a memoir-Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I am a fiction glutton and my genres are pretty diverse: historical and contemporary fiction, prize winners, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and occasionally, thrillers. These days I am re-reading The Lord of the Rings because I need an extended escape from reality and Tolkien’s great trilogy should perform the service. Didion is a respected journalist and I’ve wanted to discover her for some time now. Given my subzero emotional state in the past weeks, I thought that it was time to read her acclaimed account of loss and transcendence. The reading challenge did make me curious about literatures on the subjects of business and leadership. As a testament to that curiosity, I got a copy of Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which I hope to read this year. But for now, I just had to be lost in something closer to fiction, something that educates my soul.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion bravely examined herself and the circumstances surrounding her during the months following the death of her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne, and the critical hospitalization of their only daughter, Quintana. The year was 2003 and while Joan and John were having a quite dinner in their New York city apartment less than a week before new year, John succumbed to cardiac arrest. They had just visited Quintana confined days earlier for what was a mere case of pneumonia that escalated to a debilitating malady. Didion wrote: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
For forty years they were married and inseparable. While they were subjected to frictions couples inevitably go through, what they had was a solid marriage and partnership. Widowhood was an alien concept. Didion’s daily routines were marked by constant reminders of John’s presence, his seeming immortality. In the months that followed, Didion tried, through almost methodical means, to come to terms with John’s death and her own grief. She examined both medical and psychological literature to pacify herself. Could he still be alive if they had a firm handle of John’s health? Were there signs that foreshadowed the death they both regrettably missed? Didion reined her memory and burrowed deeper into the years of their successful marriage, creating a landscape rich with love, constancy, and daily acts of support and cooperation, none of which diminished their individualities. There is however a sinister quality to this memoir; it begs to realize how steady may I be if caught within the same situation.
The Year of Magical Thinking is a provoking foray into the wonders of non-fiction. Within arm reach from where I am seated while writing this post is a pile of non-fiction materials to be consumed as the holidays approach: memoirs on writing by Stephen King and Amy Tan, the poetries of Pablo Neruda and e.e. cummings, and two spiritual guides, God In The Marketplace and Maya Angelou’s essays. No fantasy could dislodge one from reality’s trenches hence the personal mission to create a balance in the type of books I take home and read. May these books continue to expand my horizon and educate my soul.
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