The Man Who Loved Children: On Reading What’s Good For You

Spoiler Alert for the first 100 pages of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children.

For the Year of Women project, I borrowed Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children from J. His recommendation, and a passage on Henny*, the abusive mother in the book, gave me high hopes and expectations for the novel as a whole. I haven’t been disappointed in terms of quality — it’s clearly well-written, well-respected, a modern classic, etc. However, I’m starting to wonder if reading this novel is beneficial for me. It’s a weird thing to think about, and not something that comes naturally. When I mentioned offhand to J that I didn’t know if finishing the novel would be beneficial, he had no idea what I was talking about.

Here’s what I’m not talking about: I don’t think that books, that stories, need to have intentional lessons or morals in order to be beneficial. In fact, I question whether having intentional and discrete lessons is a marker of good literature. I do think, however, that books can stay with you in a way that other forms of media can’t, and that what you consume media-wise affects you in profound, if subconscious ways. For example, I don’t think it’s farfetched to suggest that there’s a correlation between music and movies with narrative frameworks that depend on institutionalized misogyny and institutionalized/subconscious misogyny in real, individual persons. The level of causation between those things might be impossible to discretely identify or pin down, but it’s also impossible to definitely say that the level of causation between those things is zero.

In a similar way, books might sometimes fall into identifiable buckets of “good for me” “bad for me” and “morally ambiguous for me.” Me as a pronoun is important, because what’s bad for me to read at 20 might not be bad for me to read at 40, or bad for someone else to read ever. Identifying which bucket a book falls into probably requires a certain level of soul-searching that I don’t often apply to my reading, and when I do, I apply it after the fact.

For an example of the “good” category: Marilynne Robinson’s novels are like church at its best for me. After reading her books, I feel like I subconsciously know more what the cost of being good looks like, and why it’s still worthwhile to pursue it. I know more about what loving other people and attending to them looks like. I know more about what it means to be human. The novels are beneficial for me in that way, even if I can’t tell you exactly what in them makes me feel like I know more about these things.

Conversely, I would have been better off if I hadn’t read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being until later in life. When I read it, I’d never been in a serious/long-term relationship and couldn’t imagine what that would look like for me. I took the story of Franz and the fat girl who loves him and internalized it. I became convinced that her fate was my fate, and that conviction caused a not insubstantial amount of insecurity and misguided thinking. If I’d read the book even ten years later than I did, I don’t think it would have affected me in the same way.

So now I’m reading The Man Who Loved Children, and in some ways it feels like a 500-page long catalog of a family of awful people being awful to each other. Granted, it’s well written, and the characters are compelling. On the other hand, within the first 100 pages, an ignored and abused 11-year-old Loulou kills a cat because her crazy neighbor tells her to. There’s no indication that Loulou feels hesitation or remorse, aside from a single sentence fifty pages later. And I’m not sure if finishing a book about an awful family being awful to each other and to other people is good for me. It’s not shocking, necessarily, just sort of ambiguously saddening. It’s weighed on me as I’ve read it, and I’m not sure if it’s a weight worth bearing.

*From page 7:

She belonged to this house and it to her. Though she was a prisoner in it, she possessed it. She and it were her marriage. She was indwelling in every board and stone of it: every fold in the curtains had a meaning (perhaps they were so folded to hide a darn or stain); every room was  a phial of revelation to be poured out some feverish night in the secret laboratories of her decisions, full of living cancers of insult, leprosies of disillusion, abscesses of grudge, gangrene of nevermore, quintan fevers of divorce, and all the proliferating miseries, the running sores and thick scabs, for which (and not for its heavenly joys) the flesh of marriage is so heavily veiled and conventually interned.

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