This is my rather mangled copy of Doris Lessing’s “Briefing For a Descent Into Hell,” which I read during my first semester of college. It was a dramatic experience on several fronts. After devouring its pages in our campus café, I remember stuffing it—along with a leaky water bottle—into my backpack and shuffling home, only to find the book drenched and covered in smeary ink blotches later that evening. The incident shook me up a little; I didn’t like seeing the pages of my existential journey warped, damp, and drooping. My friends graciously helped me dry it with a hair dryer, but the damage had been done. My book was a crumpled mess.
The other reason “Briefing” was a dramatic experience was because it made me angry. The story’s central character is Charles Watkins of Cambridge University, a patient at a mental hospital, whose psychological journey through space is much more appealing than the novel’s external reality. I was angry because of the way the story ended, and the way Watkins was treated, and because at the heart of things, I really just wanted Dr. Watkins’ world to be true. That kind of literary desperation—the need for personal validation and affirmation within the confines of a novel—was a kind of high for me. So there it was—I was angry, thrilled, joyous, and defiant all at the same time.
On Sunday, when I heard that Doris Lessing had died, I remembered “Briefing” as well as “Martha Quest,” the only other book of hers I’d read. And I reflected on how both of these books made me feel at this fragile time in my life. If I were to read “Briefing” now, I would probably think about it much more scientifically; I would appreciate its ideas but I probably wouldn’t get as swept up in them as I did then. And “Martha Quest”? Today, I’d probably focus a little less on the content of Martha’s character and instead concentrate more on the way Lessing constructs her words, her thoughts, and her feelings.
That said, I don’t think I’ll read these books again. Doris said it well herself:
“There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag-and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty-and vise versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you. ”
And that’s what I remember of “Briefing” and “Martha Quest”—they got under my skin, they meshed well with my own patterns of thought. They were perfect for the 18-year-old I was, and they encouraged me to be more of the 18-year-old that I was. How does a writer pull that off so beautifully? I don’t know, but I thank her for it.