People have many different reasons for reading fiction. Can this diversity of reasons be subsumed under a general heading of intensification — the deepening and/or broadening — of experience? Of escaping the limitations of one’s own experience? Is that escape good or bad? Is it always possible? Bear with me. I’ll get to the inflammatory question, all right.
Some books we read to be with kindred spirits that can be difficult to find for ourselves in daily life. For a young reader, to find a girl or boy in a book who shares our own feelings and desires, someone we understand in the way we so fervently wish to be understood ourselves, can give us hope that we are not doomed to feel like freaks forever. And if that sympathetic character in a book manages to make his or her dreams come true, our own hope is strengthened. The world of possibilities, constrained as it too often seems in schoolroom or home, grows limitless and filled with light. To see oneself in a story of success can be empowering.
The world of possibilities is also made greater, though, when we encounter in our reading characters very unlike ourselves or people we know. Some fictional characters lead lives we would dismiss as easy, if we were to meet them socially, but meeting them in the pages of a book we enter into their private thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams, and we see that their lives are as complicated as lives more familiar to us. In a novel where characters struggle with poverty or physical handicap or terrible illness or political oppression — if we are fortunate enough not to have those challenges ourselves — the imaginative vicarious experience of taking on those characters’ inner lives also gives insights otherwise difficult to obtain in the routine of daily life, encouraging empathy.
And so, whether characters are like us or unlike us, more or less fortunate, people we meet in books can help us grow and expand in empathy and courage. We can try on other selves and have at least some small inkling of how they might feel from the inside.
Slipping the bonds of time and place is another reading pleasure. In the pages of a book, I can be off to places I’ve never seen in real life — the Canadian Arctic, New South Wales, medieval China — and I can dwell for a few hours in my own country as it was a hundred or two hundred years ago. Here, too, as a reader I try on another self and another way of life.
Does this sound familiar? In your own reading life, have you turned to fiction for some of these reasons? I would not reduce escaping our limitations to simple “escape,” as that word is commonly used in the phrase “escape reading.” There is undeniably some commonality, but I would not put reading fiction in the same category of escape with hard drugs or alcoholism -- although Cervantes might argue with me. Either way, though, whether you view escaping limitations as a flight from reality or an enlargement of empathy and possibility, I want to ask now: How is it working out for you these days?
I haven't taken a survey. My “sample size” so far is only two. But I’m wondering….
One writer on the radio and another I talked in person both said that they have noticed, with their most recent novels, audiences at their events not very focused on the books. What people are finding in their books, these writers say, is — and while this is always true to a certain extent for any readers at any time, they both emphasized a different now — only what they bring to them from their own lives. “It isn’t about the book at all!” my writer friend confided, a look of astonishment on her face. “It’s all about how they’re feeling!” The writer on the radio (my writer friend had not heard the interview, either, so the agreement was coincidental) said pretty much the same thing. Her latest book had been characterized by reviewers and other readers in wildly conflicting language that could only explain by her belief that they found in it what they brought to it. If angry, they interpreted the characters as angry; if sad, sad; if amused, etc., etc.
So what I’m wondering now is if we are so deeply caught up in our own emotions these days that we are foisting them off onto the characters we encounter in our reading, and I wonder if, instead of taking on other viewpoints — seeing the world through the eyes of fictional characters — we are investing those characters with our own perspectives. Or seeing them as alien to us, as our “enemies.”
I don’t want this to be true.
For most of humanity, this world has never been easy. And we need all the help we can get to understand one another. So if we can’t let fiction help us that way, what hope is there for us in books, and why should we even bother to keep reading?
The novel in my hands these days is Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. What pages are you turning? Or aren't you?