For a Rich Life, Read Widely and Freely

"Girl with Books"

“Girl with Books”


When assessing literature’s impact upon human lives, literary scholars have a problem with generalizing. Different books, after all, impact lives in different ways and even the same book may have varying effects. In some ways, a blog like this one gets closer to the reality than an essay or book that proposes a single overarching theory of literary influence. After all, in the past seven years I have offered up hundreds of examples while inviting you the reader to compile your own list of reading stories.

Wayne Booth, however, has written a single book that acknowledges the kind of variety I have in mind. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction cites hundreds of instances where reading can be seen to have influenced behavior. Furthermore, Booth believes that the shaping influence of books is healthiest if we read a wide range of books. Noting that literary works are like friends, Booth points out that, as with friends, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just a few.

Some friends, for instance, help us through immediate difficulties and others tell us things that we may find useful years from now. We go to some friends for comfort and reassurance, others for tough love. And while some friends are good for us, we also have to acknowledge that some are bad. It’s dangerous, for instance, to have friends who are less interested in our welfare than in simply telling us what we want to know.

You probably can plug in various books for each of the above situations.

Booth also compares books to different world views that we try out for size. When we inhabit a certain literary universe, we arrive at certain insights from the experience. Even the greatest work, however, represents only one truth. As Booth puts it,

[E]very narrative, even one as comprehensive as Remembrance of Things Past, can claim to present no more than one of many possible worlds.

Booth therefore cautions us not to narrow ourselves to a single friend, even if that friend is Shakespeare or Tolstoy:

The serious ethical disasters produced by narratives occur when people sink themselves into an unrelieved hot bath of one kind of narrative. No single work is likely to do us much good or harm, except when we are very young. But a steady immersion at any age in any one author’s norms is likely to be stultifying—even if they happen to be as broad and conventional as those of a Shakespeare or Tolstoy. Just as anyone who limits all friendship to one person risks becoming a partner in a folie-a-deux, a reader who becomes wholly absorbed with one author or one kind of narrative risks becoming grossly misshapen or, at best, frozen in one spot….

Each of us will have a different list of possible stultifications. For me the most interesting ones are the idolators of authors I myself admire: the “gentle Jane-ite” who re-reads all of Austen’s novels every year and thus risks living a narrower life than Austen herself ever led; the total Lawrentian who still in the 1980s tries to enact in dress and behavior the roles that for Lawrence were genuinely exploratory in the 1920s; the devotees of nihilist fiction who, like the “hero” in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, enact at one remove the avant-garde beliefs that their originators paid for in blood.

Some scholars respond to literature’s variety by claiming that literature does not assert anything and should be treated only as metaphorical exploration. Booth points out, however, that this would upset any number of authors:

If we had to take poems either as literal statements or as empty figurations, our choice would be clear: to save our story-tellers from talking nonsense, most of us would no doubt sacrifice the “literal” for the “literary.” But doing so would right upset all the authors who made those assertions of truth: they did not want us to approach their narratives with sterilized, gloved hands, for fear of real contact. No doubt some of them hoped we would even take them literally: “I’ve thought the whole thing over, just like the philosophers, and I’ve decided that what life really is, is a heroic poem.” Some of them even offer titles that trumpet such claims: “Intimations of Immortality”; Comment c’est (How It [All] Is [Beckett]); The Way We Live Now (Trollope); even “Wisdom” (Sara Teasdale).

Booth notes that, by reading many works and many authors, we can both accept the partial truths of individual authors and round out their truths with others. Plurality gets closer to the truth than any single perspective:

[A]ll statements of truth are partial…, [and we should embrace] the very plurality that from other perspectives may seem threatening. We not only recognize that there are many true narratives; we celebrate the multiplicity, recognizing that to be bound to any one story would be to surrender most of what we care for. Each example in our ever-expanding collection of metaphoric worlds will be at best a half-truth; some of them may be downright falsehoods—“fictions” in the pejorative sense of the world used by positivists. But some of them will be, as fictions, the most precious truths we ever know. We try them on for size…, and we thus compare each new one that comes our way with the other worlds we have tried to live in. At any one moment we have a relatively small collection of worlds that we take together as a pretty good summary of the “real.” But each new encounter with a powerful narrative throws a critical light on our previous collection. We can embrace its additions and negations vigorously, so long as we remember that, like all the others, this is a metaphoric construction: a partial structure that stands in place of, or “is carried over from,” whatever Reality might be.

And further on:

The great narratives, including lyric poems, “say” almost everything we know. Each successful effort at story becomes in this view either a decisive rival to or a reinforcement of the world in which we have previously led our lives.

In short, real widely and freely and make sure you choose books that challenge you as well as books that comfort you. Cultivate a varied group of book friends and they will bolster you throughout your life.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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