Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Narcissism of Reading

In my first post I talked about finding myself in Middlemarch; recently, I’ve been finding myself in Stegner’s Angle of Repose. I’m not quite sure why it took me so long to read this book—in all honesty, I’m surprised no one on my dissertation committee told me to read it. (The friend who invited me to her book club said she thought I’d like it, because it sounded like my dissertation. And in fact, when I read it, I couldn’t help thinking how perfectly the novel illustrated some of the issues of place that I grappled with. And I still think that Mary Hallock Foote—the real-life model for Susan Burling Ward in the novel—might be an ideal candidate for a future chapter of this dissertation, should it evolve into a real book project. But I digress.)

For those of you who aren't familiar with the novel, it essentially tells the story of two marriages: the failed marriage of Lyman Ward, the narrator, who from the perspective of a crippled almost-sixty-year old historian attempts to piece together the story of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, a talented nineteenth-century writer and illustrator. He is not, as he tells his assistant, so much interested in the history of Susan Ward, as he is in understanding what happened to her relationship with his grandfather, Oliver. In retelling her story, he carefully maps out the ways that living in the West at times strengthened and at times tested their relationship.

Perhaps most obviously, I see myself in Susan Ward, in her desire to be refined, her yearning after the intellectual life and all that it represents for her. (Although it might be more accurate to say that I see in her a younger version of myself; I think my yearning after the intellectual life was somewhat tempered by graduate school. Unlike Susan Ward, I’ve also learned to respect other ways of life that aren’t so bound up in the life of the mind.) I can even see myself, a little, in her perpetual struggle to appreciate her husband’s gifts. Where Susan Ward was a talented, thoroughly refined lady, her husband was evolving into a true westerner—a smart man, sure, but a quiet one, a man more likely to work out his frustrations than talk about them. Here, though, I think our differences also emerge—if I was initially unsure about Dan because he wasn’t the intellectual I’d always vaguely imagined I’d marry, I have long-since learned that his other abilities, like his groundedness, are much more important qualities for a healthy marriage. (Plus, I have a sneaking suspicion that I might resent the limelight I’d have to share with a more intellectually-leaning partner.) But the similarities, tenuous though they might be, were enough to draw me into the novel, where I fell in love with the gorgeous prose, the thoughtful and generous narrative voice, and the vivid evocations of nineteenth-century places.

This particular experience with reading has made me think more about my (our) motivations for reading. What is it that we do when we read? What are we in search of? Even in the books that we are somehow compelled to read, I can’t think that the experience of reading is simply passive—we don’t simply let the words slide across our eyes. Even in the most mundane or driveling prose, I think we search (consciously or subconsciously) for something.

In the movie Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis’s character tells a struggling student that “we read to know that we are not alone.” (According to Bruce Young, the BYU professor who taught my senior course on Lewis, Lewis himself never actually said this. But it sounds like something he should have said). I think this is true—the books that I like best are books that do something for me—entertain me, move me. But the very best of books are those in which I find myself somehow reflected, able to see myself in a particular character, or—better still—able to find new truths about my own life from the narrative truths of someone else’s life. I read—and I enjoy reading—because reading connects me to a world larger than my own immediate frame of reference. I read, in fact, to remind myself that I am not alone. A friend from graduate school frequently calls his research “me-search,” because the questions that we explore often matter to us precisely because they are in some way or shape personal.

This tendency to find myself in the novels I read is an inherently narcissistic tendency, and one that I find difficult to avoid. I’m not sure that we can help this kind of narcissistic lens. I’m not sure, ultimately, if I even should try to avoid it—for one thing, such unnatural contortions would make it extremely difficult for me to enjoy reading. For another thing, my own perspective is, in the final analysis, the most coherent perspective I have available for analysis. In the most recent book I read (one of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series), the main character finds herself thinking about what it would be like if we were able to record all of our thoughts for a day. She reflects, somewhat despondently, that most of those thoughts would likely be selfish, but then wonders if that is really a bad thing. After all, our own lives and views are the most easily-accessed framework we have available for interpreting our experiences. . I would add, too, that most of us find our own lives and needs fairly engrossing. While we can access other frameworks (and this is what most of us do when we engage in literary criticism), those frameworks will always be, to some extent, foreign.

Some might argue that other ways of reading are somehow higher, more valuable—that is, we need to somehow divest ourselves of personal agendas in order to truly appreciate what we read. Me, I’m not sure that’s ever possible. While I can imagine some other ways of reading (like applying a particular theoretical lens), I’m not sure I can imagine any way—even a theoretical lens—that still isn’t, in some way, a reflection of myself. Does this ultimately make me just incredibly narcissistic? Or just realistic?

What about you? How do you read? What motivates you when you read a book? What do you look for?

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed and can relate to this post! I giggled a bit at "I think my yearning after the intellectual life was somewhat tempered by graduate school." That was the effect it had on me, as well, to an extent.

    I know that one reason I read and study utopias/dystopias, specifically, is my interest in people's yearning for perfection, what I believe is a (not necessarily conscious) natural tendency to reach for or recreate heaven. In particular, I am fascinated that most people believe it is not possible, that if a community seems to run well, there must be something dreadfully wrong with it underneath.

    That aside, I read to assume another life, try it on for size, see what it is like, also to understand intimately people who are not like me, since books give us insights about others that people themselves rarely do.