20 May 2005

On Reading

Literature is one of the essentials – not merely one of the appurtenances or amenities – of the good life, for it is not just the joys of responsive reading that matter, but the effect of these on how we live, as individuals and as communities.

One benefit is the opportunity to consider one’s own experience, seeing in literature’s mirror reflections of one’s world and the universal aspects of oneself, but at the revealing angles that result from their being refracted through other guises.

Another benefit is the immeasurable opportunity to peer into experiences one has not had, in other lives and foreign ways of life. Observing a wider array of times and places, having the chance to sympathise with dilemmas and desires that never occurred to one, comes with thoughtful reading. Disclosing to us different worlds, literature teaches us to feel more generously, to question our inherited assumptions and understand more comprehensively as a result.

These things matter because they enlarge our capacity for compassion. Storytelling has always been a way of getting people to imagine possibilities beyond their own sphere. Literature can move back and forth between the particulars and more general ontological awareness. It gives access to Otherness. For Goethe, art was all about a journey to the other. And the enlargement of our sympathies is crucial because it is the basis of moral community – to empathise with others is to understand their interests, needs and choices, to see others’ claim to our concern. Society functions better with such mutuality in place. Because reading promotes insight into oneself and others, it also promotes the good life.