A disturbing realization

I’m plowing my way through the first in the series of George R.R. Martin’s epic potboilers, A Game of Thrones.  Finally.  Well, I’m finally successfully doing so.  And good grief, but it as actually brought me to a personal epiphany.

I have tried before to read this book and failed miserably.  But John really likes it, and I value his opinion, so I kept trying.  Also, HBO is putting together a series based on the books and it looks really, really good.  Getting it on the Kindle helped (700-page epic doorstop novels are high on my list of things that give equal on the plus and minus sides in entertainment value and repetitive stress injuries).  But for someone like me, this book was sort of like signing up for voluntary sandpapering of second-degree burns or giving Joss Whedon the license to direct the activities of your nearest and dearest for the next few months.  I felt like a petty god was sitting somewhere and saying, “Oh – wait: you like this character?  DEAD,” over and over and over again.

Why so sensitive, Jill?  I don’t know – but I know that I was the person who couldn’t fathom being a divorce attorney because I knew I couldn’t tread the fine line between the empathy required to advocate passionately for my clients and the necessary detachment from their plights to enable strategic thinking.  My emotional balance is wonky that way, even when I read a book.  I read a news report a while ago that talked about people who actually feel pain when they see someone else receive injury – the pain areas in the brain of the person doing the viewing actually light up.  I am pretty sure I am one of those people, and the more I empathize with the person in question, the worse it gets.

This even happens when I read.  Yeah, yeah, yeah – I was one of those kids whose parents said the house would burn around my ears while I read.  About ten years ago I finished The Golden Compass on a Southwest flight in a seat that faced a fellow passenger (a stranger).  When I finished the book and slowly returned to reality this person commented, “I didn’t think you were coming out of that.”  The more I do that deep dive, the more I empathize with death, injury, or loss suffered by the characters I like.  Considering the shelf footage this series takes up, I knew I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to go through that much bloodshed with my nerves exposed.

So, at long last, I realized that I couldn’t read the book with my usual 100% investment.  I had to view it somewhat dispassionately.  Don’t get attached – everyone’s going to die and probably horribly.  When I made that decision, the pages started ripping by.  And I like the book – I really do.  But I can’t love it the way I have loved other books that were also intricately constructed, intelligent, and well-written.

Here’s the disturbing epiphany.  I have been doing the same thing in life with a lot of 2010.  Not in my personal life, but in my reaction to the constant barrage of bad news.  At some point I flipped from the empathetic to the dispassionate to save my nerves.  And somehow I need to try again to sort out a way to walk that fine line.  Because being dispassionate is not the way I want to face the world.  At least, not entirely.

Edit: here’s my real incentive (to read the books, not to step back from the brink of being a completely dispassionate person-analog) – an HBO series with actors like Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Peter Dinklage? Yes, please.


  1. Living in New York City does the same thing. It’s a natural defense mechanism. Is this the tome I need to occupy me during these dark winter months?

  2. If what you need is more bleak as a side dish for your bleak? Absolutely. Especially if you prefer your bleak on a handcrafted dish of high fantasy (but minus the unicorns and outright magic – think zombies instead…)

  3. This post very much hit home for me. I tend to wallow in the things that I get involved in and then have trouble getting out — it’s why I can finish a book and turn around and immediately turn back to the first page and read it again (The Golden Compass was a book like that for me, although in that case, I got in my car and drove to three different libraries until I found the sequel). But at the same time, I read less, watch less these days. And I tend to go back to the familiar, because new books are risky in the empathy department.

  4. Ah, that’s interesting, H. I’ve been doing a lot of re-reading also – maybe it’s the “risk” aspect you speak of…

  5. I’ve steered clear of GRR Martin for this very reason – people have warned me of his killing-off habits.

    And as to the larger issue – you’re very right, and I’ve found myself doing the same thing – my response to many real life issues is “I’m not going to read this book”. And like you, I need to work on my own balance between detachment and empathy – finding a way to engage enough to be involved in right action of some kind, without feeling despair.

  6. As Jim Harrison put it, “If a crazed hick fires up a chainsaw in a crowded bar, do you wait for a tree to grow through the floor?” We can balance honoring the principle of openness with honoring the need for self-preservation. Sometimes it’s best to leave the bar. On the other hand, sometimes it’s best to swing a bar stool into the hick’s face, because then people will buy you drinks and ask you to go home with them.

  7. I have many of these same issues. There are a lot of TV shows (e.g. The Wire) and movies (e.g. No Country for Old Men) that I just can’t bring myself to watch, despite my absolute belief that they are quite good (great, even). I can end up in a funk for DAYS over things like that.

    Of course, we’ve talked about the uncomfortableness caused by I Love Lucy and Gilligan’s Island before, too.

    The big picture is hard, too.

  8. I read A Game of Thrones and had the same reaction to it. I know there are two sequels…I started on the second one, but couldn’t bring myself to keep going. It’s just too depressing a series. He’s a good author, and it’s well-written…but your points about it are right on. Every time you get attached to a character, either he kills them off or has something terrible happen to them.

    Maybe the thing to do is just find the last book at the library and skip to the last chapter to find out what happens at the end….if you really care what happens in the end. At some point I no longer cared what the outcome of the story was.