Self Recognition

Why do we read? In describing why she liked reading the novels of the French writer Colette, Vivian Gornick, a writer I greatly respect, said: “It was the potential for self-recognition that made Collette’s novels so compelling” to her.

Of course, there are many other ways to answer that question. Each of us has our own reasons. What are mine? Why have I always been a reader, indeed, more so now than ever? As I think about the question I inevitably turn to literature for the answer.

In Night Train to Lisbon Gregorious asks: “Was it possible that the best way to make sure of yourself was to know and understand someone else?”

By his action, he answers affirmatively. And so he breaks away from his teaching position in Switzerland and heads off to Lisbon in order to learn as much as he can about the life of Amadeu Prado, the author of A Goldsmith of Words, the book he found through a remarkable set of circumstances in a Bern bookshop

As I think back upon all the literary reading I tried to do while I was teaching a social science, I also have to answer affirmatively to Gregorious’ question. I realize now that I was reading literature to better understand myself, something I rarely found in the discipline I studied for so many years.

Rather, I discovered myself in the novels and stories I read. And as my reading continued, that awareness became clearer and I realized this was the place I had been seeking for quite some time. I believe it was a true discovery and not simply a creation.

In an interview on CBC Tim Parks is reported to have said:

“The reason why we like a book is because we say, Yes, because life is like that, and the reason why we stop reading certain kinds of childish books is because we say, Good story but life’s not like that. The whole question of recognition is terribly important and that’s why as you get older your reading experience inevitably gets richer because you have more of your own experience to bring to it.”

As I grow older, that is exactly what I am finding to be the case, especially now that I recapture memories that for so long had remained hidden. The continuing sense of recognition, some new, some old is one of the reasons I continue to find the experience of reading literature so compelling. Absent any such recognition might put an end to my reading days. However, I cannot imagine a more unlikely occurrence.

Elsewhere Patrick Kurp who writes a blog I greatly admire, has written: “Even as adults we’re looking for correlatives to our lives in everything we read. How else could it be?”

There is something about a work of fiction that reveals the truth of a person as well, if not better, than any other account. Janet Malcolm in her beautiful volume Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey put this well:

“We never see people in life as clearly as we see the people in novels, stories, and plays; there is a veil between ourselves and even our closest intimates, blurring us to each other. But intimacy we mean something much more modest than the glaring exposure to which the souls of fictional characters are regularly held up. We know things about Gurov and Anna—especially about Gurov, since the story is told from his point of view—that they don’t know about each other, and feel no discomfort in our voyeurism. We consider it our due as readers. It does not occur to us that the privacy rights we are so nervously anxious to safeguard for ourselves should be extended to fictional characters.”

It remains an open question how literature does this and I am content for now to leave it a bit of a mystery. Like the pleasure of enjoying a great piece of music, this matter is probably beyond words, beyond explanation anyway. However, on another occasion, I will consider recent attempts to explain the “potential for self-recognition” that makes literature so compelling.