Lincoln in the Bardo

I loved this book. I had read some of George Saunders’s short stories with a sort of academic interest (“oh, look what he’s doing here!”) but never really felt like his writing clicked with me. Then, I read “My Writing Education” in The New Yorker and loved it. I loved him–his kindness, thoughtfulness, carefulness.

When Lincoln in the Bardo was published, for some reason I thought it was really long and very historical. If only I’d realized it was about ghosts and the Tibetan concept akin to limbo, I would have read it right away.

As I guess everyone else already knew, it was not a traditional piece of historical fiction. I went through an intense Lincoln obsession in eighth grade and was thinking somehow that knowledge would taint the reading experience (either I’d be mad that I didn’t remember much from all those biographies I read in the mid-90s, or I’d remember so much that I’d be wondering when Secretary Seward was going to make an appearance).

The novel is, again as I guess everyone else already knew, smart and thoughtful and kind and strange and haunting. My mom and I spent some time talking about the minister in the Bardo–what had he done? why was he there?–and finally landed on the idea that he’d feared God, and taught others to fear God, in a way that had prevented him from finding peace with the end of his life (in the novel, and from what very limited understanding I have of Tibetan Buddhism, that acceptance is what allows people to leave the Bardo and begin their subsequent lives). It’s been a long time since I encountered a book that made me want to re-enter the world of the novel rather than do research as a means deciphering the points that confused me.

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