“We all choose things…”

“We all choose things, and we also choose against things. I want to be the kind of person who chooses for more than chooses against.”

–Alex, from Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (page 241)

It’s been some time since I read this novel, but this is a line that still resonates for me. I love it when a writer manages to offer up a perfect expression of something I’ve felt but not named precisely. Here, it’s the idea that how we choose what we choose could constitute a kind of life ethic. To “choose for” would mean having causes, pursuing goals, acting with a sense of purpose and commitment. To “choose against,” by contrast, would mean reacting to circumstances and resisting situations without knowing what one wants instead.

This is a useful distinction, too, when thinking about how characters function. If you thought of a spectrum from “Always chooses for” to “Always chooses against,” where would you place your character?

I also recall a number of wonderful (related) lines from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I’ll have to fish them up for you and maybe even tell you all how reading Annie Dillard in an Austin coffee shop landed me my first (and only) tattoo and motivated me to embrace the writing and teaching life.

About the quotation. Read Everything Is Illuminated. It’s on my top shelf of books (full disclosure: I don’t like JSF’s more recent Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close half as much). Check out two interesting reviews from the British press, a glowing one at The Times and a bit more muted one from The Guardian (critiques reactions to the novel as much as the novel itself). 


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