Why Read II? PDF Print E-mail
Culture
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Thursday, 02 September 2010 08:17

Character is shaped by what I’ve called “pictures,” by the models that we strive to imitate and the worlds we attempt to bring into being.  But so what?  Who needs pictures?  Why can’t we deal with reality?

In fact, we all live out of pictures, images, models, and metaphors all the time.  Pictures of an ideal marriage shape our aspirations and actions, and pictures of an ideal career can inspire hard work and perseverance.  Some of these pictures come from real-life acquaintances and experiences.  But not all.  All of us have been shaped by living role models, people we admire and seek to imitate, and knowing fictional characters and worlds adds to the store of models that we have, models to imitate and to avoid.

Character, in short, is shaped by imagination and also by the company we keep, by our associations and friends.  St. Paul knew that “bad company corrupts good morals.”  Our bumpings-up against other people are not like the bumpings-up of one billiard ball against another.  We can be radically changed by bumping against the right, or the wrong people.

It is a myth, and a destructive one, that each of us is a hard little atom of humanity rolling about independently of everyone and everything around us.  We recognize that we are affected by people around us, but live under the delusion that those connections don’t change the real me, the me nestled within the hard outer shell of my life.  This is an absurd way of thinking about life.  Consider speech.  Our accent and our use of language are among the most distinctive things about us.  We know each other by our voices.

I have many friends in the South whose accents identify them by their region, and while living in England I learned to distinguish different accents from various shires. Yet, those Southerners who talk funny do so because their Momas and Daddies did.  The Northumberlanders who are known by their accents didn’t make up their own patterns of speech, but inherited them.

Now, fiction is a kind of keeping company with other people.  Reading a novel involves making a set of friends (or enemies).  In fact, we get to know fictional characters better than we know many of our closest friends.  Only the most intimate of companions share their thoughts as fully as Hamlet, Emma Woodhouse, or Sidney Carton.

We cannot be simplistic about these things.  Characters in fiction are not presented to us as people come to us in the real world. In the real world, we experience and notice what Providence brings to us.  But the fictional world, and fictional characters, are always filtered to us through a narrator, the author or a fictional speaker through whom the author writes.  We think we’re learning a lot about Emma or Elizabeth Bennet, but of course we’re only learning what Austen chooses to show us.  As Wayne Booth points out, if we were looking at Emma from another perspective than her own, if we saw her through the eyes of Harriet Smith or Mr. Elton, for example, we’d see a spoiled butt-insky who was not nearly so innocent or endearing as the character we know.  Because we see things through Emma’s eyes, we have a particular angle on the whole story, and see only what the author wants us to see.  Tom Stoppard has experimented with this in his absurdist version of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and John Updike does something similar by telling the pre-history of Hamlet in his novel Gertrude and Claudius.  These contemporary writers enable us to see the backside of characters whose front sides were shown in the original works.

Remembering the mediating role of author and narrator is important for Christians who object to their children reading books about unsavory characters.  If the narrator directs the reader’s attention to the unsavoriness of the unsavory character, then we are actually being trained in wisdom and virtue by reading the book.  We’re learning to taste unsavoriness when we encounter it in life.

Still, bad company corrupts good morals here as well, even if the company is fictional, and Christian readers are right in their instinct to prevent readers, especially immature ones, from being exposed to the wrong kind of fictional company.  But it also means that fictional company can extend our experience.  If growing up with Southerners encourages us to speak Southern, growing up with Othello and Pip, Alyosha and Tom Sawyer will shape our speech, and our character, in enriching ways.

None of us escapes the influence of fictional pictures or fictional friends.  Imagination is not something we can take or leave.  Our thoughts and actions, and our character, are always guided and shaped by some form of imagination.  The issue is always whether our imagination is richly or poorly stocked, whether it is shaped by nightmares or molded by dreams.  The issue is whether our imaginations are stuffed with pictures drawn from the M-TV or pictures drawn from Melville, whether we make fictional friends at the cinema or meet them in Shakespeare.



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