It is often said that literature is a way to enrich our lives, to explore other possibilities and points of view, but what happens when literature constantly mirrors our selves back at us? What happens when the literature we read consistently reaffirms and never challenges?
There’s a scene in St. Urbain’s Horseman, where Jake is considering how it’s not only London or Canada which he found unsatisfying, but also the books, music, and movies he had consumed over the years.
“The novels he devoured so hopefully, conned by overexcited reviews, were sometimes diverting, but told him nothing he had not already known. On the contrary, they only served to reaffirm, albeit on occasion with style, his own feelings. In a word, they were self-regarding.”
I really enjoy that phrase “self-regarding” because often, myself included, we seek out the same kind of literature over and over again. We end up reading books with the same themes, same types of characters, in the same genre, which also share the same values and general point of view. I’m not knocking it, there are people who only enjoy reading one certain genre or who usually stick to a particular subject. I read diversely, but I go through different phases where I focus on one characteristic in particular and I exploit it.
What does that continuous mirroring effect do to the way we perceive the world? I think it’s a bit like having a friend who always tells you what you want to hear, who never argues with you. It’s nice and it feels comfortable, being safe in the certainty that you will always be in the right. However, sometimes you need something that jolts you out of your comfort zone. You need that friend who stops you in your tracks and tells you you’re wrong or simply tells you you’re acting like a dick and need to reevaluate your attitude.
It’s the same with books, in my opinion, it’s great to read books about subjects that are important to you, books that reaffirm your values and points of view, but it’s also necessary to read books that challenge your assumed position. It’s these last ones that make you truly think about who you are and what you’re striving for or defending. It’s the challenge that forces us to go back to basics and either reaffirm ourselves more strongly in what we’re defending or change our perspective to include the new information.
Self-regarding. It’s a certain narcissism, isn’t it? Consuming something that constantly reflects your own self back at you… Jake is exasperated with these types of book and I think we should be too. There are so many great books offer up a dialogue instead of a shiny surface in which to stare at ourselves. We’ve already turned so many things –phones, windows, computers – into elements that feed our narcissism, let’s not relegate books to the same fate.
What was the last book that truly challenged you? Let me know in the comments below. Until next time, readers!