Reading novels is like stuffing your face with mental veggies. It can lower stress levels, help you sleep better, keep your brain sharp, and stave off Alzheimer’s, all at the speed of a turning page. Before you whip out your laptop, however, consider this: “At least a few studies suggest that screens sometimes impair comprehension precisely because they distort people’s sense of place in a text.” For years I’ve been interested in the effects of reading, ranging from its impact on subjective experiences, i.e., moral and psychological, as well as on the underlying objective physiology. In a gorgeous bit of serendipity, I find myself working at HopeLab where we research the connection between mental states and the body so we can develop interventions to improve health and well-being. In the coming months, I hope to uncover and share fascinating tidbits in the realm of reading, psychology and biology.
Not that one.
The other: Schweitzer.
I read The Quest of the Historical Jesus in grad school.
It laid the groundwork for a whole new appreciation of the Bible for me.
A theologian, musician, philosopher, doctor, surgeon, and Nobel Peace Prize winner —
Albert Schweitzer is many things.
But today he’s a 90-year old gentleman,
Penning a thank you note to my aunt Kris in the last months of his life.
In September 1965,
Aunt Kris, 16, sent Albert a birthday wish;
Their birthdays were only a day apart,
Plus she was an admirer of his —
A fan of his anti-war stance and his reverence for life philosophy,
Minus the vegetarianism.
In a missive that’s partly templatized,
Albert wrote back in August.
Here’s the front side of the envelope.
And the back.
Here’s the heart of the matter,
Where Albert thanks “Dear Miss Karlsten”
And signs off “With my best thoughts Albert Schweitzer”.
He died later that September.
I held the postcard today, thoughtfully, a lovely bit of minor history.
Here’s a press clipping from a local paper in Ontario, CA.
In last Friday’s post, I got tuckered out. My bad.
Picking up the thread, let’s agree that Gone with the Wind is a morally appalling book.
Here’s the passage in the Rohan’s superb article I’ve been mulling over:
“While I read [Gone with the Wind], in the present, I am invited to share its point of view; I enter, today, into its particular pattern of “desire and fulfillment.” The desire it urges on me is a desire for the South to prevail. Of course, this wish cannot be fulfilled, which is why the dominant mood of the novel—one to which even Scarlett finally succumbs—is nostalgia. But it’s a retrograde nostalgia, one that requires me, if I play along, to compromise my commitment to a just and equal world.”
Like most novels, good or bad, well written or not, Gone with the Wind has a definite point of view. In this case, it adopts a stance on labor, land, family, leisure, race, history, and duty, among other things. A complex moral framework with many moving parts, some of which are appealing, others not.
Entering a point of view, with its alien and foreign values, doesn’t require us to compromise our commitment to a just and equal world.
Why would it?
We can read an adulterous novel without abandoning our belief in the virtue of fidelity. And we can read misogynistic, hebephilic, and even homicidal necrophilic novels without losing or staining our moral beliefs in these areas, too. A moral stance isn’t compromised by entering a strange odious world.
Rohan suggests that reading Gone with the Wind sympathetically suppresses one’s best self. I disagree.
There’s an alternative way to frame the issue. Bring one’s best possible self to bear on a novel, period. Do one’s level best to enter its world, good or bad, familiar or alien. Allow one’s emotional center to be moved by it. Then one might learn something new and unexpected about language, about desires and values, about in-group and out-group dynamics, about the primacy of gut feelings over reason, about different moral foundations and viewpoints, and about the mysterious transit between belief and action in a pluralist world.
We’re so easily divided into hostile groups, each convinced of its own righteousness.
Instead of worrying about the possibility of moral contagion, bring your best possible self to bear on reading alternative points of view, especially when they strike you as morally appalling. Especially then.
Struggling to find common ground through the difficult practice of sympathy is a lot better than the alternative.
At last I’ve finally screwed up the nerve to disagree with Rohan Maitzen, an English professor and talented book blogger at Novel Readings. She’s read Gone with the Wind a staggering 31 times. That to my one.
Of course I’m likely playing the upstart to a wiser, more informed perspective. Or not.
If you haven’t read Gone with the Wind, here’s what you need to know to join the party.
The novel is a compelling read, a page turner, and it’s splattered with many vices. Yeah, it suffers from aesthetic limitations as a work of art.
But these aren’t the vices I’m foregrounding (thanks, Tom!) at the moment.
No, I’m talking moral vices.
As Rohan says, “It’s a morally appalling book.” It ignores the iniquity of slavery, adopts an apologetic stance toward the Confederacy, and whitewashes the history of the civil war.
Now I’m not convinced books can be immoral. I tend to agree with Wilde that they’re either well written or not.
The proper objects of moral condemnation are people and their actions.
Not fictional people, those thronging denizens of stories.
You, me, and all the rest, including Margaret Mitchell.
Perhaps she is immoral after all. Assuming the narrator is not only a literary device but is also a kind of incendiary or morally retrograde bullhorn, Mitchell might be writing (read: acting!) immorally.
Even then I’m not convinced.
But let’s assume it is a morally appalling book with a morally offensive point of view and that Mitchell is an immoral author and person to boot.
Let’s just grant all that. Or rather please allow me to grant it when I’ve mustered the energy to press on.
I’ve plumb run out of steam and am ready for bed…
The highly gifted mirabile dictu posed a series of questions to me and others to source material for a feature on blogging. Because my blog has languished lately, I thought I’d share my answers here. Happy New Years, everyone!
When and why did you decide to start a blog?
I started blogging in July, 2009 at Between the Lines, where I interviewed readers and documented some of their readerly tics and quirks. Bookish people love reading about other bookish people. It’s good fun, you see. But bookish people like me often tire of depending on others for content. So I shuttered Between the Lines about a year later and started blogging at Interpolations, mainly for selfish reasons. When I read a novel, especially a good one, I suffer it like an illness and have to retch up a few observations before returning to health. That, and I hope one or two readers find something useful in my writing.
How often do you blog?
Not nearly as much as I’d like. I’m busy with work, two kids, and other interests like hiking, vegetable gardening, and photography. In the long ago, I blogged twice a week, and if it were at all possible, I’d happily return to that cadence. But that’s not likely for some time. Fingers crossed for the future.
Do you consider your blog at all “political”?
No, my blog isn’t political despite the fact that I’ve called the Second Amendment tosh. In my opinion, the main political issue of our time is the rampant dysfunction in Washington and the massive disconnect between U.S. policies and public opinion. I spend zero time diagnosing this problem or advancing solutions to fix it. Nor do I present a point of view on other issues related to equality, justice and sustainability, even though I have very strong opinions in these areas. No, my blog isn’t political.
Are you also on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media sites?
In addition to WordPress, I haunt Twitter (here and here), Facebook, LinkedIn, Vine, and Instagram. I also blog at HopeLab in a professional capacity as a Curator of Creative Communications and help manage the foundation’s social channels, among other things.
What are the pros and cons of blogging?
Blogging helps me retch so I feel better. Relief is good that way. It’s also helped me meet other people who are passionate about books, from the U.S., Canada and the Philippines, to England, Australia and Iran. It’s helped refine my appreciation for works I didn’t like at first blush, as was the case with Foe and Vanity Fair. It’s uncovered some gems I wouldn’t have otherwise read like Embers and The Leopard. It provides a record of my thoughts and observations, and even a petty crime (1 and 2). And it’s encouraged me to experiment with different forms of writing. As for the cons, I can only think of one right now, and hopefully it’s particular to me. Good blog writing and reading/engagement has wrecked my appetite for long-form articles. I’m reluctant to touch them even though they’re very important for public discourse.
Do your family and friends support your blogging, or are you writing for a different audience?
Only a few of my friends and some of my family know I blog. I don’t write for them, and I don’t readily speak about my blogging unless prompted, and even then I might dissemble a bit. Again, I write mainly for myself and in the hope that someone finds it useful or entertaining, or challenges my observations or point of view.
Does the courtship of marketers affect you or not? Do you accept products (books for most of you) from PR people? Does it influence your reviews?
I receive lots of requests but always politely decline free books and ebooks. I’m just not interested in them. David Mitchell once kindly sent me an ARC of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, for which I was enormously grateful. It didn’t influence my review at all. I panned it.
Are you concerned when critics belittle blogs?
No, not at all. Their criticisms are either valid or not. If valid, they help improve the form. If not, they help improve our thinking as we defend and evolve the form. So it’s really a win-win and hence a non issue.
Are you more influenced by blogs or book review publications in your choice of reading?
In general, my reading appetite is dictated by some mysterious source in my head. I submit to it when it tells me what to read next. But I suppose I’m slightly more influenced by blogs than by book reviews in newspaper or magazine pubs, when I’m influenced at all.
What blogs do you recommend?
Whenever I have a chance, I visit the sites on my blogroll. Each blogger does something different, unique, and interesting, so it’s easy to recommend them.
# # #