Let us sit back at the end of a long day and consider a couple of scenarios. In one of them, a good looking, very cultured man sits on the couch, in a town surrounded by Pennsylvania hills, reading a story from The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. (Did you recognize that description? It’s me! Except for the adjectives.) So OK, I’m sitting on the couch reading Chaucer, and there is a description of a man whose daughter has been injured and he’s grieving. I’ve never experienced what the man in the story went through, and yet I sympathize with his feelings, and as his wife tells him that he should not wallow in grief, somehow I understand and connect with that as well.
In a second scenario, taken from the book Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (by Dai Sijie) set during the horror of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, two young men acquire a forbidden translation of a novel by Balzac. Although Balzac was writing in France more than a hundred years earlier, the two men, and a young woman who they read the book to, are all captivated and moved, to the extent that the woman changes her life and leaves the village.
Chaucer could not have imagined me here, on a continent that he didn’t know existed, more than six hundred years later, able to read about him, in fact, on the internet. From Chaucer’s point of view, I live in a magical world of the future where people fly and we can take a heart from one person and give it to another. Though not quite as dramatically, Balzac might have been surprised and surely moved to know that his novels, so deep in the life of nineteenth century France, would be read by young Chinese in a poor isolated village more than a century later.
My point, though, is not whether writers of the past could imagine who might read their work. Of course they couldn’t. Who can know the future other than certain talented witches? My point is why we read people who seem so distant from us. Why do we connect with them? Human beings seem to feel an ambivalence toward people who are far from us in both time and space, feeling some connection to them (so that we feel empathy, for instance), yet also feeling disconnected. When I was teaching classes on ancient Greece and Rome, I would sometimes have students who felt that those people lived so long ago they were practically a different species. When I finally showed the students just how much those ancient people were merely us in another time (assuming I did show them that), they were surprised. Similarly, a writer can surprise us by connecting us to people who we think are Really Different From Us.
Imagine a young monk named Sifridus, 20 years old, living in a monastery in Germany in the year 1012. He gets up at 3:00 in the morning to go to chapel and pray for an hour with the other monks, and several times during the day they pray or sing hymns. During summer his job is to work in the gardens that feed the monastery, hot, sweaty work with insects. In winter he is learning how to paint the pictures that fill the margins of some manuscripts. In the monastery library, Sifridus has found a copy of Homer’s epic The Odyssey, translated into Latin, and in his small free time he reads it, fascinated to the point that he dreams about it.
Imagine a teenage boy named Gary, 16 years old and living with his parents on Amsterdam Avenue in New York City in 2012. Gary goes to private school, which he gets to on the subway, and he has to wear a uniform, which he doesn’t like. One of Gary’s favorite activities is looking at Facebook to see what people he has friended are doing, but he doesn’t comment much, as he’s afraid people might think what he says is stupid. There is—of course—a girl in school who Gary admires and writes notes to, which he then throws away. He is too shy to speak to her. One of Gary’s friends has recommended a book to Gary, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and Gary is astonished to discover this amazing tropical world of passion and parrots and wild romance.
And once more, imagine Margaret, who lives in the year 5012, in the city of Armstrong on the moon, where she works in the city administration overseeing the school system. Back in high school, Margaret used to think that someday she would take off a year, go to Earth and just travel, visit some of the exotic places she had only seen in movies or holocasts. Like most lives, however, hers did not go as she planned, and she fell in love, got married, fell out of love, got divorced, then found a job helping to run education programs for the city, which sounded interesting. Now she is 52 years old, and her main companion is her cat Shiva. One day she reads about a novel that sounds really old, but she gives it a chance, and begins reading Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and she can’t put it down.
The young monk Sifridus, in his proscribed life of religious ritual, dreams of something more than his monastery, where he thinks he will spend all his life, with its endless routine. He wants something grand, and though he would never admit to such a sin, he wants to be heroic. When he reads about the marvelous adventures of Odysseus (and with his, hmm, sexual encounters), Sifridus is enthralled.
Gary in New York, in spite of his shyness, is aflame with desire for a romantic encounter. In part this is the discovery in adolescence that the other sex is Really Interesting, it is partly the biological urge, more powerful than a freight train headed off a cliff, to have sex, and it is partly Gary himself, as he will learn that he is a romantic person who wants to feel connected to someone. Gary’s desire for romance, which he can’t even yet articulate, is incarnated in Love in the Time of Cholera.
Poor Margaret also could not tell you exactly how she feels, as she is grateful for her job, grateful for her three friends who she meets once a week, and grateful for her two children who call her regularly. She is also bored with her life. She wants more freedom, to let everything go and explore in a way she always intended but never did. As Huck Finn and Jim go down the river in this ancient novel, in a land that she imagines was barely settled at the time, the wild adventure of it fills up her soul.
We read creative literature for a variety of reasons, but a major reason is because we want to feel that our own lives are not so isolated, that we are not so oddly different, that there are other people like us, that we can feel a connection. We want to know that our lives make at least a little bit of sense, and books can let us find other people who feel the way we do. Books also let us feel things we never experienced and would not otherwise feel.
I would, myself, like to know that I am not so oddly different. I want to feel a connection. I guess I should keep reading.