Hello, again. I’m musing on why books can makes us cry. I’m aware that this is largely a female topic of conversation. But don’t believe everything you hear—men really do cry, sometimes.
When I think of books I have cried over, two spring to mind immediately. The first, in my early teens, was Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson, HarperCollins, 1977). I remember being called to come in to dinner. I couldn’t answer because of the very large lump in my throat. I think it was the first time I read a novel in which someone died. The second was Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Yes, really. I cried when Guinevere discovered, too late, that King Arthur was lovable.
It’s been 15 years since I shed tears over the once and future king and his wayward love. I reread the poem not long ago, and I couldn’t recapture the moment. It seemed a loss to me, the ability to read the tragic, intricate poetry without entering it fully, as a human being. I remember that first reading, curled on my dormitory bed, the book clasped in both hands, and my inner being pressed to the cold stone floor with Guinevere, leaping up to catch a final glimpse of Arthur riding to his death, to call his name in helpless anguish. There was something about Guinevere that belonged to me then that I can no longer reach as easily. I could feel the fierce remorse of her warring with my own conviction that even the gravest error could be mended. I grieved for her because she missed her happy ending so narrowly, so completely, and (I thought) so unnecessarily.
What about now, 15 years later? What makes me cry now? Soldier stories, mostly. I married a soldier. When I read about soldiers or watch war movies, I know what I’m seeing. I cry now over stories that touch on all those unspoken things that make up the deep, loving places of my life with him. I cry over women saying goodbye and then hello again. Hello makes me cry much harder than goodbye. I cry over the embattled fellowship of soldiers with each other that can never be explained, only understood.
When I cried over Guinevere, I was mourning an idea that was dear to me. When I cry now, I am crying in sympathy, in memory of past grief or in the painful ecstasy of returning to something precious. It’s the difference between thinking and knowing.
In some sense, this is the essence of my personal literary theory, even my theory of art in general. To me, art is truth made tangible, visible, articulate. If I don’t recognize some essential facet of the human experience in a book, a painting, a song, it loses value to me. I want to learn something about living and being from art. If it isn’t true, it’s no good to me.
I see this as an intrinsically Christian perspective. We believe that God, the creator, formed us in His image and likeness, and this quality in us brings us back to Him and to the fullness of ourselves. What is most true about us comes from Him, reflects Him. Art that genuinely perceives and shares that truth must be the greatest beauty we can achieve.