When I discuss reading with my family we go down two very different paths. My parents and sister read to escape, they like fantasies and stories that take them out of their world. Whereas I read to understand my world, I enjoy realism and essays. I find nothing to dislike in their escapism, and while our roads diverge they cross over at points as well.
Our most recent discussion occurred as I was reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and it lead me to wonder what exactly I learn from what I read. What I understand about my world. I noted many things, but for this post I shall focus on self-respect.
Books that have taught me about self-respect:
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
“To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem, P.144
Didion has quickly become my favourite writer, her writing is always on point and stunning. My favourite essay in this collection is, unsurprisingly, titled ‘On Respect’. Anyone who gets as anxious as I do will find direction in these seven pages.
“It is the phenomenon sometimes called ‘alienation from self.’ In it’s advance stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. [...] To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem, P.148
Joan told me to stop worrying, stop being anxious, that I’m letting myself down. It didn’t come with a ‘calm down’ or a ‘chill out’, she didn’t make me feel stupid, she highlighted where I was going wrong and how I could fix it. I couldn’t respect her more.
The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery
Valancy Stirling taught me that breaking away from societal constraints brings happiness. She accepted who she was and was happier for it. She went her own way, sure she thought she was dying, but she hadn’t realised what happiness was till she took the leap.
“Fear is the original sin. Almost all of the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that someone is afraid of something.It is a cold slimy serpent coiling about you. It is horrible to live with fear; and it is of all things degrading.” The Blue Castle
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
I have waxed lyrical about my admiration for Fanny Price. Of all Austen’s characters, she certainly has the most self-respect. She never allows anyone to compromise how she understands the world or how she acts in it – no matter how different or puritan it may seem.
“Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure.” Mansfield Park
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
I’ve already spoken on my difficult connecting to the protagonists of Anne’s novel. However, on the matter of self-respect Wildfell Hall speaks volumes. Helen Graham’s stand against her husband’s actions – considering the time in which the novel was set – were heroic. She stands by her principles, her self-belief, and faces scandal to protect her son.
Easter Parade by Richard Yates
“For a year she found an exquisite pain – almost pleasure – in facing the world as if she didn’t care. Look at me, she would say to herself in the middle of a trying day. Look at me: I’m surviving; I’m coping; I’m in control of all this.” Easter Parade
The book that broke my heart. Easter Parade is a typical Yates novel, people trying and failing to understand what it means to live a successful life. It’s the above statement that teaches self-respect. There is a pain to not caring what the world thinks of you, to not conforming. It’s not easy, but it’s healthy.
How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
I couldn’t write this list without an ode to Caitlin Moran. Without Moran I would know nothing of self-respect. I wouldn’t have read this book, realised what I was blinding myself to and change my view of my place in the world.
Coming back to edit this post I’ve noticed these are all books I have read in the last few months or years. There must be more than these that have taught me about self-respect, but for the life of me I can’t think of them now.