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Stuffing your head inside the covers of a book doesn’t always get the respect it deserves. Many people claim to be too busy to read a novel. In our efficient and convenient world, maybe it seems particularly wasteful and indolent to turn your back on the happenings of life and simply retire to your room with a book. But I would argue that almost nothing can rival a book for opening up a universe of experience that would otherwise remain undiscovered. And moreover, few media are capable of eliciting such genuine human empathy as the pages of literature.
Here is the opening of Trauma by Patrick McGrath (2008).
My mother’s first depressive illness occurred when I was seven years old, and I felt it was my fault. I felt I should have prevented it. This was about a year before my father left us. His name was Fred Weir. In those days he could be generous, amusing, an expansive man – my brother, Walt, plays the role at times – but there were signs, perceptible to me if not to others, when an explosion was imminent.
That first paragraph of Trauma contains not an ounce of pretension. It is exactly what it is. The beginning of a story about a man’s difficult relationship with his family. How much more simple can communication get? The only thing that can rival it would be to sit down and tell somebody your story verbally. But books can often go one better than that, because the author gets the chance to refine the story. While speech might be clumsy and rambling, an author can find the most effective and engaging way of conveying the narrative and delivering it to you straight.
Another great opening: Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866):
On an exceptionally hot evening in early July, a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, toward K. Bridge.
He had successfully avoided meeting his landlady on the staircase. His garret was under the roof of a high, five-storied house and was more like a cupboard than a room. The landlady who provided him with garret, dinners, attendance, lived on the floor below, and every time he went out, he was obliged to pass her kitchen, the door of which invariably stood open. And each time he passed, the young man had a sick, frightened feeling, which made him scowl and feel ashamed. He was hopelessly in debt to his landlady, and was afraid of meeting her.
Again, no messing around. Dostoevsky simply gets right to the important stuff. In two simple paragraphs, we can understand the poverty and indebtedness of the main character, the environment in which he lives, and we already have some insight into a conflict that is likely to unfold in the subsequent pages – that between him and his landlady (not to mention the internal conflict caused by his feeling of shame).
Before these words were set to paper, the world of Raskolnikov (the main character) did not exist. Which is an important difference between novels, and say, film or photography, both of which require a tangible reality to capture and represent. For a film of Crime and Punishment, there would be no alternative but to build or find an apartment that accurately depicts Rasknolikov’s squalid and cramped garret. Whereas a writer can create a world without ever setting foot away from his desk.
Of course, to be any good, the writer must have experience of the world. And this is what makes all the difference. What is the author’s ability to absorb and recall the goings-on of life – the noise and smell of a street, the cadence of a conversation between a woman and her lover, the fall of sunlight in a dense forest – and then convey those things on paper?
Writing also requires a particular discipline of attention and decision-making. A film’s eye falls upon pretty much everything in its scope, but a writer, because he starts with nothing, only brings into existence those things he chooses to represent. Until I say, “Crouched expectantly under the chair was a black and white tomcat” there is no tomcat. But now there is one. And he wants feeding. The writer’s job is to convince us that those things he has chosen to represent are worthy of attention.
But books don’t liberate writers only. For centuries, they have liberated a far greater number of people than that. Books liberate readers.
I am in my room and there is nothing happening; the rain falls persistently outside and life seems gloomy. I open a book and immediately I am immersed in the lives of other people. And yet, because it is a book, I am not simply passively escaping my world and into another. An effort is required on my part. Rather like going for a walk, the scenery will not pass me by. I am the one who makes it pass by. I won’t get anywhere without following from one word to the next, from one sentence to sentence the next, page after page, and so on.
And so when I get to the end of Crime and Punishment, I have expended considerable energy in the life of Rasknolnikov, as well as in the numerous other people who inhabit his world. Why should one choose to invest energy in the lives of other people – especially those that don’t even exist?
Because we care about other people; we care about the human condition. If we can care about people that don’t exist, and through the detailed insights into the most intimate happenings of their life come to understand them better, we are also permitted fresh insights into all the people we know and care about in reality.
Fictitious people are our company, our friends. If they die, it hurts us.
Being hurt by the death of people we don’t even know – people that don’t even exist – is the pinnacle of human empathy. If literature can move us, then the events in Gaza or Sudan or Abu Ghraib can move us. Television or video games have frequently been criticized for desensitizing human beings, but I’ve never heard the same said of great literature.
Literature is an empathetic enterprise; more of such a great thing can only be good. To lose the feeling of being alone – albeit fleetingly – is one of the most profound joys that life can offer. And it is a gift not from Nature, not from whatever you think is “God,” nor, heaven forbid, from a company or government. It is a gift from a feeling and thinking human being, just like any of us.