Monday, 29 December 2008

Novel as Friend

How is it that one person can like a literary novel while another, equally sensitive, does not? I have been a founding member of two book clubs (in Edinburgh and Toronto) that between them have lasted more than 20 years. In each we have read novels at a rate of about one a month, with a bit of an intermission in the summer. One of the delights of these groups is of engaging with books and then hearing quite different takes on them by the other group-members. Sometimes, fairly rarely, something less good happens. One or more people, despite trying, cannot get into a book. In our current group of nine people who are close friends, the last-but-one book we read was William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, and the most recent book was a modern Canadian novel, Steven Galloway's The cellist of Sarajevo. Most people in the group liked Vanity Fair, but three of us did not, and I was was one of those three. For The cellist of Sarajevo, I was one of three (a different three) who liked the book. I thought it was a brave and moving novel that invited us to imagine what it would be like if most of the ordinary things in life were suddenly abolished, as they are in war (the setting for this book is the Siege of Sarajevo when the city and its civilian inhabitants were surrounded and shelled every day for four years in the 1990s). How could one retain, or perhaps rebuild a sense of purpose in life? Four members of the group did not like it, thought it amateurish, and lacking in insight.

Why one takes to a book remains mysterious to me. The best I can make of it is that, as Wayne Booth proposes in The company we keep, reading a novel is like meeting someone and becoming a friend, having a companion over a certain kind of journey. In a friendship, two minds can meet, and one's thoughts and feelings are taken up, and extended by the other. In a piece of fiction, the idea of friendship is enlarged: one allows oneself not just to be with other people but to become them. One enacts the work in one's own mind, articulating thoughts and ideas, and feeling emotions that one would not otherwise have had, but which one finds it enlightening to have, which extend the self.

Not liking a book seems to me like meeting someone with whose mind I cannot connect, not necessarily because I don't like the person, though sometimes that is the case. There is a mental space, into which I do not manage to extend myself, so I can't join that person. When this happens with an actual person, I can usually get along with him or her well enough if necessary, for instance if he or she is a colleague with whom I must work. I am polite, but the relationship proceeds without much affection, and I can accumulate grumbles about that person. When this happens with a book, the sense I have is of boredom—and there is again the accumulation of grumbles.

With a book one has to make a commitment of several days. It may be a bit calculating, but it seems to me that I ask: Will such a commitment be worth it? It is a matter of trust. In the reading group, I sometimes commit myself to a book to which I would not commit myself if I were reading on my own. Quite often, in that case, I am pleased I did make the commitment, and I enjoy hearing what others thought and felt.

But I still don't know how close friends manage to make some of the mental leaps that I cannot make into books that are the worlds of other minds?

Wayne Booth (1988). The company we keep: An ethics of fiction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Steven Galloway (2008). The cellist of Sarajevo. Toronto: Knopf Canada.

William Makepeace Thackeray (1848) Vanity Fair. London: Penguin (current edition 1985).


Rohan Maitzen said...

Similar problems can arise among (literal) friends: have you ever introduced two people, both of whom you really appreciate, who somehow don't hit it off? At some level, I suppose the answer to why people befriend each other, and their books, differently is something to do with our own unique complexities. Each of us brings so many layers of experience and character to each encounter.

There is a mental space, into which I do not manage to extend myself, so I can't join that person.

But you don't assume you could never manage to extend yourself in that direction, do you? I think the willingness to consider what makes the book worthwhile, on its own terms, is important. Often we need to be shown ways to read something (especially something unfamiliar, or unlike what we usually or easily appreciate) that bring its particular excellences into play. Actually, I think this is my most important job as an English teacher--to help readers new to particular (kinds of) texts find rewarding ways to read them. I have a dear friend who reads everything, at first, with a painful literalness, testing the book against the question "do things really happen this way?" Not surprisingly, she doesn't do well with Dickens, because that isn't really the best question to ask about his novels.

Still, even if we can be brought around to seeing why someone who likes that sort of thing would like this particular thing, we still won't like everything equally. I can see what so many people highly recommended Auster's City of Glass to me, and of its kind I think it is probably very smart. Still, it will never be a close book friend of mine.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Rohan, for these thoughts. I agree that sometimes when one introduces two friends, they do not get on. And I agree, also that one of the important roles in teaching literature is to introduce people to books they would not otherwise read. I don't assume that I could never read a book that I haven't been able to get into before. In 2009, one of my projects is to extend myself into Faulkner, whose work has until now remained beyond my reach. As to Auster, I have read just one of his books. I think it was one of the early ones, maybe The locked room. I thought it was admirable in its accomplishment of a post-modern detective story (with an existentialist flavour of a kind that interests me) which at the same time engaged with identity, that central preoccupation of modern American literature. I seem to remember I found it quite absorbing, but although I notice when a new Auster comes out, and may read the review, I don't feel drawn to read any more of his books. With some other writers— George Eliot and W.G. Sebald—I think I have read almost every word they have written.

allanmcdougall said...

I love the book as friend metaphor. I research the Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) program that sentences convicts to study American literature. The book as friend metaphor is another way to explain the impact that reading great works of literature has on these individuals--who have never had access to post-secondary instruction in their lives.

Great books are your friends. They talk to you when you have something on your mind and they allow you to explore new insights into your own thoughts. For CLTL participants, great books are friends they've never had, and, like a good friend, the books impact their lives for the better.

Thanks for the Booth citation as well,


Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Allan, for this comment. I had not thought of the importance of the idea of book-as-friend for people with criminal convictions in the Changing Lives Through Literature project (discussed in our post of 23 May 2008), but it makes absolute sense for those who have been marginalized from society.

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