Fictional Readers

At the Guardian Book Blog Jon Varese writes about the reading experiences of fictional characters:

When I'm reading, nothing excites me more than the discovery of a character who's reading along with me. That character becomes, instantaneously, a kind of compatriot – a kindred spirit absorbed in the world of books, inside the book in my hands. Of course the discovery is even more delicious when the book that they're reading is something that I already know and love.

He mentions his favorites—the countless books Jane Eyre had read even by the age of ten; the 18th century novels that David Copperfield had read; and “who can ever forget Emma Bovary, that hopeless romantic whose doomed fate finds its roots in her reckless and irresponsible reading?”

I too have several favorites. There are those sections in Michael Ondaajte’s The English Patient where Almsay falls in love with Katherine as she is reading a story from Herodotus.

This is the story of how I fell in love with a woman who read me a specific story from Herodotus. I heard the words she spoke across the fire, never looking up, even when she teased her husband. Perhaps she was just reading it to him. Perhaps there was no ulterior motive in the section except for themselves. It was simply a story that had jarred her in its familiarity of situation. But a path suddenly revealed itself in real life. Even though she had not conceived it as the first errant step in any way. I am sure.

Or the scene in Ian McEwan’s Saturday where Henry’s daughter Daisy is reciting Mathew Arnold's Dover Beach:

Daisy recited a poem that cast a spell on one man. Perhaps any poem would have done the trick, and thrown the switch on a sudden mood change. Still, Baxter fell for the magic, he was transfixed by it, and he was reminded how much he wanted to live.…Some nineteenth-century poet….touched off in Baxter a yearning he could barely begin to define. Page 288

Or the earlier passage where McEwan describes how Henry felt about the books that Daisy had encouraged him to read?

Henry had read the whole of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, two acknowledged masterpieces. At the cost of slowing his mental processes and many hours of his valuable time, he committed himself to the shifting intricacies of these sophisticated fairy stories. What did he grasp, after all? That adultery is understandable but wrong, that nineteenth-century women had a hard time of it, that Moscow and the Russian countryside and provincial France were once just so.

Then there is the delightful novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie. Perhaps you recall the story of the Chinese teenage boys who are sent to a remote mountainous area to be re-educated. One of them (Four Eyes) is reading Western books in secret which two of the boys (Luo and Ma) eventually steal. Luo takes one of the books, Balzac’s Ursule Mirouet, and begins reading. He finishes it quickly and shortly thereafter

…was seized with an idea: I would copy out my favourite passages from Ursule Mirouet, word for word. It was the first time in my life that I had felt any desires to copy sentences from a book. I ransacked the room for paper but all I could find was a few sheets of notepaper intended for letters to our parents. I decided I would write directly onto the inside of my sheepskin coat.

Finally, I recall Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Anna in the Tropics about a group of Cuban immigrants who work in a cigar-making factory in Florida. It was the tradition then for a person known as the lector to read books to the workers while they rolling the cigar paper. A new lector arrives and begins reading to them Anna Karenina. Anna in the Tropics is the story of the way the novel’s love affair begins to influence the life of Conchita, one of the workers in the factory.

Varese concludes his discussion of fictional readers with the question I regard as central to the act of reading:

What are the effects of reading? Not just upon fictional characters, but upon ourselves? This, to me, is one of the most fascinating reflections presented by the intersection of reader and text—testing the question whether a book can change your life, and whether that’s a good thing.