Reading and Sympathy

On the plane ride back to the mainland, I read a Jonathan Franzen article in the New Yorker about Edith Wharton – it’s also about reading. Franzen writes that he suspects “sympathy, or its absence, is involved in almost every reader’s literary judgments. Without sympathy, whether for the writer or for the fictional characters, a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering.” It’s an interesting article, particularly Franzen’s exploration of our often puzzling attraction to unlikeable protagonists, and I thought about the books I’d read on the trip.

In Penelope Lively’s “How It All Began: A Novel,” a mugger and a broken hip set up ripples of reaction tangling all the characters in the book. We learn about them in part by the books they read. The main character, Charlotte, teaches adult literacy, children’s books help her Iranian student to learn English, and characters who read “The DaVinci Code” are distinguished from those who do not.

It’s easy to identify with Lively’s heroine: “She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.” I definitely rooted for Charlotte!

And now a confession: I also read an appalling number of pages in the first book of the George R.R. Martin fantasy series “A Game of Thrones.” It’s a huge sink into book with an almost recognizable landscape and time much like medieval England, a coming winter that might last for decades, and castles full of characters – sympathetic and un – royals, commoners, “direwolves,” and “Others.” Engrossed, I ignored or accepted a lot of violence. I read while holding the firstborn child of my firstborn (you begin to think in the language of the book).

The series appears never-ending, and is beloved by many people and by certain members of my family. It’s fun to share the experience – to surface from the page and ask about an improbable event or person. (And ignore the ridicule of other family members.) Lively writes: “Thus has reading wound into living, each a complement to the other.”

The night we came home I went back to “Middlemarch” – on my bedside table for months as I’ve read a bit each night – glad to encounter Dorothea, irritating but very sympathetic.

Reading – such a privilege – an opportunity to pay attention, to enjoy as Lively says “this good life with all its grits and graces.”

1 thought on “Reading and Sympathy

  1. My younger son is a huge GAME OF THRONES fan and he gave me the audiobook. I’m hopelessly confused — so many characters ans settings. I think I need t see the words and be able to flip back now and then.

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