Can a book ruin a man? A memory.
The filmmaker Erroll Morris asked the question on Twitter, “I am interested in assembling a collection of stories of people destroyed by reading (Any suggestions?)” and I wanted to make a smart contribution but couldn’t shake a faint memory of someone wrapped in a blanket wandering Easton’s Beach with a tattered copy of Far From the Madding Crowd clutched in their hand.
Who were they and how had they gotten there, I wondered.
I remember being home and catching up with my father.
He told me about a young man from our school who had suffered a nervous breakdown. He was strung out on drugs — an ominous and all-purpose phrase for danger, lack-of-control and the beginning of the end — and had briefly lost touch with his family and friends. The Newport police found him in the early morning, lashed by rain, the blanket sodden and pressed with sand. He was weeping and saying something incoherent about Gabriel. He was going to walk into the surf. His name was Bill.
The book was the detail my father came back to. My father was an English teacher, a pedagogue of taste, interpretation and understanding, a popular professor who could make adolescent boys feel smart and cool. He was puzzled by the choice of Hardy, who he considered a minor novelist in a period where the novel lacked energy. How could Thomas Hardy have such influence that an un-hinged adolescent in the late 20th Century would use him as an anchor during a Stage 5 mental breakdown?
My father was tickled by the literary illiterateness of the police, who capably began a search of the beach for Gabriel, one of the main characters in Hardy’s novel. Bill was carted off to the hospital, then discretely transported by his family to a facility where he got dried out and re-oriented.
Bill surfaced again last year. One of my old classmates posted on Facebook that Bill had died after falling down a flight of stairs. He’d been with one of our old friends, had missed a step and knocked his head violently.
He’d pulled his life together in the authentic way that a lot of burn-outs manage. He became a concert promoter, and built a decent living out of the world that had presented him with so much temptation and ruination when he was a young man. He got married, had a daughter, got divorced.
The stream of posts remembered him fondly, telling stories of his humor, his ready smile, his exploits back in high school.
I remembered the day he was found wandering on the beach in a rainstorm.
Had his life been ruined that day? He’d experienced a moment of ruin, was forced off the path into a emotional cyclone. A book was at the fulcrum of the moment. He was so overwhelmed with emotion about the characters, identified so deeply with Gabriel, that he could no longer tell what was real and not real, and was filled with despair. He was losing his will to live.
What I can’t say it whether the book was part of his ruination or his redemption. The same imagination and sensitivities that caused him such torment let him experience a world wholly beyond himself. That ability to see things that don’t exist may have been what germinated a new life, the life he made and lost in an unfortunate accident. When he clutching the book, he clutched the ability to make things new. That isn’t an instance of destruction, and it is an example of the remarkable power that a great book has.