Reading may teach us how to be alone, as Jonathan Franzen has noted, but for centuries we’ve placed our faith in the art of the novel because it also teaches us how to be with others—and sometimes even how to play fair with them. The novel serves as a constant reminder that we are not alone; we share this world with others. It’s no surprise, therefore, to see those recent studies that reveal how the reading of literary fiction cultivates empathy.
“I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality,” Flannery O’Connor writes in Mystery and Manners. “It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.” Most of us know that we could take O’Connor’s words and apply them to reading fiction, as well.
We read word by word, gathering details like crumbs in a fairy tale, all the while trusting the writer to guide us through the trajectory of her sentences. The best of them always usher us into the unexpected.
Take, for instance, a moment in Madame Bovary, one of the many examples in that novel where Flaubert reveals his characters’ connectedness. He places us inside the Bovary household, where Emma, seated at the piano, plays with “aplomb,” running her fingers “from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break”:
Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff's clerk, passing along the highroad bare-headed and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.
Thus these two characters share a moment through the sound of Emma’s piano, a beautiful detail that unites them, however tangentially.
Another writer, Vladimir Nabokov, uses sound to similar effect in Lolita in the scene when Humbert Humbert takes Charlotte Haze to Hourglass Lake—“(not as I thought it was spelled),” Humbert says in one of the novel’s many jokes. Once there, he entices Mrs. Haze into the water, scheming the perfect murder—to drown the mother so that he can at last seduce the “girl-child” Lo. When they reach the middle of the lake, however, Humbert notices two men on the opposite bank building a wharf.
The knocks that reached us seemed so much bigger than what could be distinguished of those dwarfs’ arms and tools; indeed, one suspected the director of those acrosonic effects to have been at odds with the puppet-master, especially since the heavy crack of each diminutive blow lagged behind its visual version.
The proximity of those men—“at least a thousand paces away (if one could walk across water)…,” writes Nabokov—and the sound of their hammering work like a beating conscience that saves Charlotte’s life, at least for a few more chapters.
That tranquil yet eerie scene at Hourglass Lake in Lolita differs greatly from the roaring crowd that Don DeLillo assembles in the prologue of Underworld, that wondrous masterpiece of world literature. An African-American boy, Cotter Martin, has skipped school to sneak into Manhattan’s Polo Grounds so that he can watch the 1951 pennant game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. DeLillo weaves the early action of the game between Martin, ticketless in the outfield, and a conversation among several real-life characters—Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, J. Edgar Hoover and Toots Shor—in their upmarket seats. Amidst their jabber, they keep an eye on the game. “Mays takes a mellow cut but gets under the ball,” DeLillo writes, “sending a routine fly into the low October day.”
With his next sentence, DeLillo spans a bridge between Mays, nucleus of all attention in that moment, and every character present at the Polo Grounds, but most importantly the batter and the truant boy in the outfield: “The sound of the ash bat making contact with the ball reaches Cotter Martin in the left-field stands, where he sits in a bony-shouldered hunch.”
Writers engage us through our senses. Years or decades later, we can still recall—if not the plot or setting or even the characters’ names—an essence that wafts from their pages. What we carry with us is often a handful of details. The great writers always ask more from us. By doing so, they also elicit more from us, providing images and sounds and smells that we can fondle, to borrow Nabokov’s term for what we should do to the details we gather from the page.
Such a moment as DeLillo’s scene at the Polo Grounds not only provides sheer delight but also reminds us why we read in the first place. This sentence—alongside the others listed above—reminds us to step out of our own lives and segue into others, those lives far more diverse and varied than any we’re ever likely to have the good fortune to encounter if we remain trapped in our own skin.
Underworld is available at all good libraries and bookstores, including Avenue Bookstore.