Reading Responses

Stained GlassLast week we attended a concert of classical music performed by the South East London Orchestra. We heard some stirring Mendelssohn, a very interesting piece by Fung Lam and Dvorak’s crowd pleaser, the New World Symphony. I get quite teary when listening to dramatic music like this and my husband squeezed my hand sympathetically as I dabbed my eyes. Afterwards he commented that the Dvorak had obviously gotten to me.  No, I said, the tears sprang into my eyes while the orchestra was tuning up. Sadly it seems mine is a purely Pavlovian response to the ‘A’ note the musicians tune their instruments to, and little to do with the music itself, beautiful though it was.

This got me thinking about other things that bring tears to my eyes – sad movies, breathtaking views, the vaulted interiors of cathedrals, corny TV advertisements, reciting my marriage vows. I like to think I’m a sensitive soul; I can’t sing hymns or join in with Christmas carols anymore because I cry, (some would say this is a good thing because I can’t carry a tune in a bucket) and I would prefer to be weeping out of sorrow, happiness, empathy or shock rather than because of a physiological effect I’ve got no control over.

Which brings me to my response to literature. I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve read that made me weep. Surely they moved me mentally rather than physically? There’s no musical note literally plucking at my heart strings but I doubt my reaction is purely down to my physiological makeup. Stories can be heartbreakingly sad, profoundly unfair, shockingly unexpected, resoundingly happy or uncomfortably close to home. They can also be uplifting, life-affirming tales with positive outcomes for everyone, but my response is the same. But isn’t this why we read? For validation of our own actions; a quest for the truth and the universal hope of that elusive happy ending. The tears are a bonus.

Off the top of my head, here are a few titles that have reduced me to tears:-

  • Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy (I remember one of my younger sisters, a reluctant teenage reader, almost giving up reading for pleasure after this shocking ending.)
  • The Bridges of Madison County – Robert James Waller
  • The Pursuit of Happiness – Douglas Kennedy
  • After You’d Gone – Maggie O’Farrell
  • The End of the Affair – Graham Greene
  • The Road – Cormack McCarthy
  • Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  • On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan

As a result of reading and absorbing such powerful writing, this has become something of a personal ambition, too. It spurs me on to create relatable characters and plots that move the reader – not on an instinctive level like the ‘A’ note at the concert – but with skillful use language as an expression of emotion.

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