Whilst it doesn’t seem important at all in the great scheme of things that other people should enjoy the same stories we do, it’s often a moment of rupture and dissent to hear a friend express a negative opinion on a book we’ve loved. I’ve been planning for a while now to talk about why it should be so upsetting to have other readers dismiss a book that has brought us great pleasure or joy, when I noticed that the wonderful Nymeth had discussed it as a topic in her Sunday Salon (motivated by a post from C. B. James), saying that ‘We tend to feel personally invested in the books we love, as well as in the recommendations we make.’ I couldn’t agree more, and it intrigued me to think further about why this should be, why books should matter to us to this extent and what form that personal investment might take.
I was thinking about all of these things when I picked up Marshall Gregory’s Shaped By Stories again and found the next chapter was on literature as companionship. His argument is that we enjoy the company of others not just in the flesh but also in the mind. As the blogging community can testify, the fact that people have never met each other face to face doesn’t mean they can’t form meaningful and lasting relationships. The people we love in three dimensions aren’t with us all the time, and that doesn’t necessarily alter the quality of our affection. Whether the companionship offered to us comes in the virtual form of a fictional narrative or a group of flesh and blood people, we tend to use the relationship in similar ways, comparing or corroborating desires and values, finding models of behaviour we admire or reject, embracing the insights and new perspectives on offer. In fact, we can do this more easily with a narrative in which the inner life of the characters is made transparent to us, as opposed to real people, whose motives and intentions we are often obliged to guess at.
When a story makes us feel welcome in it, when we feel at home for whatever reason, among friends, or if you’re that way inclined, beloved enemies, then we feel affiliated to it, we open ourselves up to it and belong. To describe this experience, Gregory calls to mind Northrope Frye’s ‘moods of identification’. Frye asks his students to imagine themselves on a desert island. Most of the time, he suggests, they may feel dislocated and homesick; but there would be moments when calm would descend: ‘in this Robinson Crusoe life I’ve assigned you, you may have moods of complete peacefulness and joy, moods when you accept your island and everything around you. […] they’d be moods of identification, when you felt that the island was a part of you, and you a part of it.’ This is the marvelous feeling of identifying with a story, with its inner landscape, if you like. Reading the right book offers a transformative experience of great peacefulness, acceptance and engagement, a moment of being in the flow, no longer separate from life but immersed in it without fear or threat. It’s the same experience as being with someone we dearly love, who makes us feel good and accepted. And so for someone else to dismiss this experience, to reject it, is not just saying, I didn’t like that book, but it’s saying, ‘I don’t like the spaces in which you feel completely at one with yourself’. And ‘I don’t like your best friends much, either.’
We can look even deeper at this experience by considering the act of reading itself. I’ve been working my way through Maryanne Wolf’s book Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain, and fascinating reading it’s been. We have no idea how complicated the neurological processes involved in reading are, and yet by late childhood we can accomplish them without a second’s thought – literally.
Wolf takes her reader through the child’s learning process as she lays down the mental tracks that will make reading possible. First of all she must learn to decipher letters and group them together phonetically. Then she must overcome the gap of reference between word and world. Whilst all this happens, her vocabulary is growing, her associations with words are expanding, and experience is offering her a mass of confused perceptions, emotions and feelings. When she comes to read a book properly, the result is the powerful confluence of all these different resources. When, as adults, we read a word, our brains sift through every single association provoked by it, in order to provide us with the right associations, the right feelings to guide us in the process of making sense. Our reading is underpinned by an unimaginable wealth of experience, built up since childhood, coloured by our unique sensory and emotional responses. When books speak to us, they hit the right notes in our vast memory banks, although we have no conscious knowledge of this happening at all. The process goes by much too fast for us to grasp it. But the books we love, for whatever reason, produce a symphony of associations in our minds of great resonance and beauty. When other readers don’t like the same books we do, it’s almost as if they are saying ‘I don’t like the way your mind works,’ or ‘I’m underwhelmed by your processes of association’, when of course all they really mean is that their own layers of life experience made for a different kind of response.
And finally, a thought about how books offer enlightenment and a projection of ourselves into the future. Adam Philips (a great favourite of mine), reminds us that when we talk about ourselves, we are working every day at the limits of our language, at the furthest reaches of our capacity for storytelling. By which he means that we’ve refined our stories of ourselves so that they are the best, the most accurate, they can possibly be. But as psychoanalysis testifies, there are always parts of our personal narratives that are opaque, painful and distressing. Philips describes how ‘People often come to psychotherapy these days suffering from translations of themselves that they don’t feel that they have corroborated in.’ He’s referring to the way that family, friends and acquaintances can all interpret our behaviour in ways that feel wrong, limiting, unkind or simply offensive. We’ve all been stuck in other people’s stories, playing the wrong character, or typecast in ways that seem to deny outrageously the experience we have of ourselves. So much of life is about being misrecognised and miscast.
Reading stories that speak to us can give us versions of ourselves that appeal and placate and enlighten. At the level of the sentence, they may give us words for feelings and experiences that had been only a bewildering blur. At the level of the story, they show us patterns of beliefs and emotions we can relate to, insights into our responses and reactions, possibilities for growth and choices we didn’t understand that we had. We can feel finally understood, represented, encouraged. But we might not know all of that whilst reading; there might only be a sense of rightness about the story, a sense of fit. When other readers don’t like this kind of book, it feels as if they’re saying ‘I don’t like the person you think you are’ or ‘I’m indifferent to the great sorrows and hopes that underpin your existence.’ And once again, the issue here is simply one of the uniqueness of each reader’s situation.
So when another reader doesn’t like the book you’ve fallen in love with, it isn’t a judgement on your being, on your friends, on your aspirations or on your experiences. It’s simply an indication that everyone is different. We bring to the reading experience great untapped reserves of memory and desire, opening ourselves up to stories in a way that is completely unique, expecting, and often finding there, so much of immeasurable worth. And that is really all that matters. That we find the treasures of comfort, recognition and understanding in our reading life, and hope that others, in their own way, will do the same too.