J. Ruth Gendler is an artist, writer, and teacher who believes in the transformational powers of art. She started writing early and her earliest works were, unsurprisingly, poems. ‘The Book of Qualities‘, is still in print after some 40+ successful runs. I came across it during an idle browse in a used bookstore in Raleigh, North Carolina one day and instantly bought it. There are some-70 qualities described here as if they’re people who live around and with us. Gendler gives them emotions, faces, and personalities. And, as they come to life in her words, they make us wonder about our own particular versions of them. Here, courage and fear live side-by-side, beauty and ugliness share certain traits and pleasure and pain have a deep connection.
Gendler describes how she came to writing this book as follows:
When I was a little girl, I made up a story about the store where they sell Qualities. More like a trading post or library than a department store or supermarket, we could go to the store where they sell Qualities to taste, try on, and sample various qualities. From time to time as a teenager I made notes about the factory where they manufacture facts and the image warehouse where they store belief systems.
As I committed myself more seriously to writing Qualities, I began to consider the limits of emotional language. We often assume we know the dimensions of an emotional quality and whether it is good or bad without taking the time to see where the quality can take us and what it can teach us.
For writers, poets, and artists everywhere, these vivid descriptions can even be terrific prompts for their own works. If nothing else, they allow us to look at the people in our lives — real and fictional — through a more acutely-observant lens, and, perhaps, understand the subtleties in their moods and needs.
The three excerpts presented below are not necessarily the best ones from the book — mainly because it was hard to pick any as “the best”. Yet, they are representative of Gendler’s writing here and, hopefully, they will whet your appetite to read more.
What I like particularly about these three excerpts is how Gendler paints or creates characters or situations that most of us can immediately identify with. They’re well-rounded and multi-dimensional so that the positive qualities have some negative traits and vice versa. Isn’t that just how life is, after all? Nothing is entirely good or bad in itself.
Yet, of course, our abilities to look beyond the obvious in other people, in ourselves and in whatever life has to offer us are rarely as sharp as we’d like them to be. Indeed, as George Eliot famously wrote in ‘Middlemarch‘:
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
But, in the odd moment of clarity, when we look well enough, we can see the squirming black worm inside the luscious red apple or enjoy the lingering aftertaste sweetness of a bitter unwelcome medicine. And those rare visions and insights become, often, the defining moments of our lives, for better or worse.
The Book of Qualities (excerpts)
Pleasure is wild and sweet. She likes purple flowers. She loves the sun and the wind and the night sky. She carries a silver bowl full of liquid moonlight. She has a cat named Midnight with stars on his paws.
Many people mistrust Pleasure and even more misunderstand her. For a long time I could hardly stand to be in the same room with her. I went to sleep early to avoid her. I thought she was a gossip and a flirt and she drank too much. In school, we learned she was dangerous and I was sure that she would distract me from my work. I didn’t realize she could nurture me.
As I have changed, Pleasure has changed. I have learned to value her friendship.
Well, your children told me Unhappiness has volunteered to cook for you. I understand you do not enjoy fixing meals for your hungry household. Still, I must warn you to consider this offer carefully. Unhappiness was the cook in my dormitory food service years ago. Her favorite meal is burnt lentils with stale toast. Her taste in vegetables runs toward the rotten. Even when she makes foods that taste good, you leave the table vague and unsatisfied, you find yourself eating flat bread in the corner of the pantry an hour later. Complaining to her about the food does not help. Mean comments please her. Just because Unhappiness thrives on misfortune and blackened bread doesn’t mean they will nourish you
Fear has a large shadow, but he himself is quite small. He has a vivid imagination. He composes horror music in the middle of the night. He is not very social and he keeps to himself at political meetings. His past is a mystery. He warned us not to talk to each other about him, adding that there is nowhere any of us could go where he wouldn’t hear us. We were quiet. When we began to talk to each other, he changed. His manners started to seem pompous, and his snarling voice sounded rehearsed.
Two dragons guard Fear’s mansion. One is ceramic and Chinese. The other is real. If you make it past the dragons and speak to him close up, it is amazing to see how fragile he is. He will try to tell you stories. Be aware. He is a master of disguises and illusions. Fear almost convinced me that he was a puppet master and I was a marionette.
Speak out boldly, look him in the eye, startle him. Don’t give up. Win his respect, and he will never bother you with small matters.