Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I always find myself in a curious conundrum when it comes to literature and music. I enjoy hearing and reading things that are original, or at least re-worked in a creative way. At the same time, I find myself postponing the experience of new things. Anyone who has made a mix CD and mailed it to me knows this well. While I’m happy to receive it, I’m not always anxious to listen to it. The same is true of artists that I like. Every time Sleater Kinney put out a new album, I would buy it, and then let it sit for days, sometimes weeks, before I would pop it into the CD player. I usually loved their previous album so much that I was afraid the next one would be a let-down. Never mind that they had a habit of putting out better and better albums each time; I always figured that the other shoe would drop, that one day I would become disillusioned, or feel that they had “lost” it. That never actually happened, but the expectation of disappointment is an interesting one.

With literature, I find the problem occurs when I walk into bookstores. I look at hundreds of books, and always end up choosing the same authors, or gravitating towards things I’ve read a hundred times. I’ve finally finished going through several weeks of the NY Times Book Review, and I found many things that sounded interesting. Yet, when I walk into a bookstore, I’m totally at a loss. I’m afraid to commit to buying something that I might not like. I’ll fly 3,000 miles to see a concert or art exhibit that I am uncertain of, but I hem and haw about buying a $12.95 paperback.

I’ve started to wonder: What is wrong with me? This isn’t a financial issue, and it’s not as though I’m afraid to take risks. The more I think about it, the more I realize that it has as much to do with my personal boundaries, in the way a relationship does. I’ve always been very sensitive when it comes to images. Something truly horrifying can frighten me for weeks. Something very sad can make me feel sad, or at least very disturbed, for an equally long time. In relationships, I am actually quite sensitive as well, and have had feelings seriously hurt enough times that I am very choosy about who I allow to cross my personal boundaries. If I think they’ll do damage with their tenancy in my heart, then they don’t get the lease. And if someone tries to break in, or even trespasses unknowingly, they get ejected rather aggressively. However, I do find that I’m willing to take relationship risks if the situation intuitively FEELS right.

All of this is also true about my relationship with music and literature. If I’m feeling rather isolationistic, then I may not want new influences intruding on my environment. It could be because I’m stressed out, just went through a major trauma, or had some other experience that makes me want to stick with the familiar.
I have days where I feel bolder and riskier, and this generally corresponds with an openness that I feel in personal interactions as well. I’m more likely to pick up something new when I’m in these moods. But I generally won’t make a sudden move towards a style of literature or music that I’m not familiar with, or have felt indifferent towards in the past. Again, as in relationships, I often have to be introduced to something new by someone whose opinion I respect.

The consequences of this are varied. A good friend may give me a new mix of songs, but the stress of not knowing if it will leave me exhilarated or flat often makes me avoid listening to it for awhile. Sometimes I listen to a piece of music or read a book just to oblige someone, a bit like going on a date at the urging of a friend—I do it more out of politeness and obligation than actual interest. But sometimes I’m taken by surprise, and really like what I hear or read. Or, I dismiss it at first, but rediscover it later, and really love it. It’s possible in the latter case that what I’m hearing or reading may suddenly and synchronously fit in with feelings I’m experiencing at that time, so it becomes a wonderful serendipity.

The one exception with regard to reading is non-fiction academic books on certain subjects of interest. I’m apt to pick up an academic book before I’ll pick up a novel. And why not? Non-fiction doesn’t cause the same kind of turmoil and emotion that a fiction book may elicit, unless is it about a very painful subject (the Holocaust, for instance).

All of this comes back to boundaries. Art, music, literature—and yes, religion (I can’t get through a blog post without mentioning that, can I?) are extremely personal, and often reflect our own issues and conflicts. I find that I want to pick and choose my emotional battles, and I keep fairly strict boundaries, hence the lack of “adventure” in these matters. But as I’ve noted before, life is not that controlled, and the most wonderful things often come about by accident. I think I’m better off allowing myself to have a happy accident than to remain so predictable in my tastes.

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