My husband is reading one of my favorite books, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831). He’s been tackling classics in recent years. I thought that was the reason for this choice, but just discovered he’s showing the 1939 Charles Laughton film version at the Cleveland Cinematheque in a few weeks. Movies often motivate his book selection, as in his last choice, White Noise by Don DeLillo, recently adapted by director Noah Baumbach.
Hunchback provided me with one of the most memorable reading experiences of my life, and it always brings to mind this Emily Dickinson quote: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it.”
I was sitting in a study carrel in the Kent State library in the mid-70s, reading the novel for a Comparative Literature class. I won’t describe the passage to you, because I have a mortal fear of spoilers, but let’s just say there are a few epically suspenseful pages in the middle of the book.
As I sat alone, huddled in the carrel by a window, I clutched the book, swept up in the dramatic action. My feet began to move, eventually stamping the floor, pumping away to dispel the anxious energy building inside me. When the passage ended, I laughed with relief, closed the book, and put my head down on the desk. I believe I was breathing hard.
In case your mind goes in this direction, there is no sexual innuendo going on here.
I didn’t feel cold, and I didn’t feel as though the top of my head was taken off, but I felt caught up in Victor Hugo’s imagination, present with his characters in Paris in 1482. It actually took me a few minutes to recover my equilibrium.
I can think of a few other examples, but probably none so dramatic. It’s awesome, isn’t it, how words on a page can make us laugh or cry or worry? That they can affect us physically, making our hearts pound or our stomachs clench?
Share your experiences in the comments. I want to know when you felt so cold no fire could warm you, or, at least, when a book overtook you.