What do we have to learn from classic books? What could be relevant to me inside something written by someone that has so little in common with my own time and person? How can I possibly learn anything other than what happened in the past and what went wrong?
“Much of the way we perceive ourselves and the world manifestly changes as society, language, ideology, and technology change; but we also continue to share much as creatures born of woman, begotten by man, raised with siblings, endowed with certain appetites, conscious of our own mortality, confronting nature from our various locations in culture.”The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age by Robert Alter
“The characters and life situations of the narratives of different eras speak to us not because they reflect a knowledge which never changes but rather because they express a set of enigmas with which we continue to wrestle.”
That’s what a good book is all about. This is why we read novels, why we pick up books written a hundred years ago, by a person completely unlike us, from a place completely unlike ours. We see the commonality in the experiences of others throughout history, in fiction and non-fiction.
When we write, we create characters and put them in situations to experience and work through. While we write them, we are working through our own things, “wrestling” with that “set of enigmas.” And when you read it, you see our work and incorporate it into your own. It’s magical and crosses time and culture in a way no other medium can.
No, I’m not a young white female in Victorian England, but I can understand that character and use her experience to round out my own thinking. I’m not a black male in the American South, escaping slavery and falling in love…but I can feel those feelings, experience it, in a way through the authors words, and see ways we share humanity.
We learn empathy when we read classic books, fiction from ages past. We learn about ourselves when we experience life through another person’s thoughts, real or imagined. And we learn that what it really means to be human across all times and cultures doesn’t change that much. There’s some comfort in continuity.
Click over to my original post, “The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age” to read my initial thoughts on this book!