A Thousand Selves by Laura Raphael

*This article is adapted from Laura’s One Small Good Thing blog, a project this past spring in which she asked librarians to notice “one small good thing” per day for a month.

This is going to sound unnecessarily dark, but once, years ago, my therapist asked if I was having suicidal thoughts. "No," I answered. Then, "Well, yes, sort of? Like, I think about how great it would be not to be myself anymore. Not to be dead, exactly, but to wake up and just be some different person."

That's a fairly universal feeling, I think, that occasional desire to be someone else... coupled with the knowledge that you can never really get outside of or away from your own maddening self.

Unless you are reading novels.

(Even then, of course, you're still reading with your Self, locked into your own experiences and perspective and prejudices and idiosyncratic knowledge or ignorance.)

Encountering stories -- in novels, memoirs, narrative movies or documentaries -- is a surefire way to lift yourself out of your Self, if only momentarily, and become someone else. A thousand someone elses, in fact.

I've always been a reader, a consumer of stories (though tellingly, when I was talking to that therapist, I'd stopped reading for a few months), but for many people, that reading bug doesn't really kick in until they are older, often in retirement.

I love working with people in the library to help them find the books that will allow them to live great adventures and become other people – the man in a wheelchair looking for the John Carter on Mars series, or the woman carried away by Amish romances.

If we're lucky, librarians get to help people make those connections -- and sometimes, we just get to participate at the fringes, and watch it happen. 

Not without coincidence, instead of completing various household and grad-school tasks, I recently spent my time reading Jonathan Dee's latest novel, A Thousand Pardons, luxuriating in the lives of people not myself. One general theme of the novel relates to guilt and contrition and redemption (as the title suggests), but the other, more pressing theme is about the very thing I'm writing around -- wanting to get outside the box of who you are... and then realizing you can't. It seems a pretty despairing message, until the other shoe drops: yes, you’ll always be locked in your Self, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of brief escapes, particularly through reading.


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