Defining what we are in
the mirror of literature

People scramble from crisis to crisis, without any self-awareness or rock-solid principles to guide them. Where do such helpful principles and self-awareness come from? On the religious side, there are many churches waiting to guide us. On the secular side, literature can be a huge help.

In the words of Clifton Fadiman, “When you re-read a classic you do not see more in the books than you did before; you see more in you than there was before.”

Reading good books encourages us to identify and enrich our authentic interests. We define what we are, and are not, by looking into the telling mirror of literature. Books give readers a chance to ask, over and over again, in a million hypothetical situations, what would I do?

For example, in the great American epic Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara is confronted by the loss of her ancestral home, the advent of the Civil War, the loss of her only child, a series of failed marriages, and the love of a wicked and wonderful man, Rhett Butler.

We cannot help but assess the choices that Scarlett makes during the course of the novel and ask ourselves seriously what we might have done in her place to save our family home, keep our independence, survive a war, and meet our emotional and financial needs.

Seeing where we stand

Reading is also a way of putting our own lives and selves in proper perspective. Reading about people whose lives are more deprived, more damaged, more chaotic, or more arduous than ours can make us appreciate the things that we can be thankful for. Reading about people whose lives are more interesting, more meaningful, more successful, or more fun than ours can inspire us to want to achieve more, and they can help us find the quickest routes to that achievement.

Reading is a sure way of fitting ourselves into the hierarchy of things and seeing where we stand, and if that is where we want to stand.

Reading is additionally one of the few socially acceptable solitary endeavours. It’s a pleasurable way to retreat from the activities and people of our lives – both physically and psychologically.

Alone without being lonely

Knowing oneself not only takes time, it takes privacy, and also a habit of introspection that can be developed through a healthy love of solitude, in which we can take the time to read and think.

Readers are those lucky folks who can be alone without being lonely. They do not always require other people to entertain them. Many a beleaguered captive has survived his captivity through the power of books, the memory of good books, and the ability to think and spend time profitably alone.

We can be intellectually independent like them and survive the dreaded doctor’s waiting room with enviable poise and serenity, as long as we have a good book with us.

And finally, literature is a sure path to that very mysterious, but much talked about, quality of “self-esteem.” Readers feel good about their ability to enter into any conversation, keep their minds alive in trying circumstances, and to “get the joke”.

Self-esteem does not come from kindly teachers telling Fred that he is a nice boy; it comes from Fred tackling challenging projects, recognising his failures, and experiencing some measure of personal success.

Being a well-read, literate person in our declining culture is a genuine cause for considerable self-esteem, and everyone knows it. It answers. what Harold Bloom calls the human “search for a difficult pleasure”.

from Book Savvy by Cynthia Lee Katona (2005)