As we discuss Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction in my Theories of the Reader class, I am remembering how much the University of Chicago literary scholar has influenced me. “Influence” is a good word to use with Booth because he has many things to say about how literature influences us.
While many people make loose claims about how books are good or bad for us, they often base their claims on anecdotal evidence or even on no evidence at all. Booth wants to figure out a way to systematically study their impact. He takes a two-step approach: first he charts the rich tradition of seeing books as friends, and then he uses Aristotle’s examination of friendship in Nichomachean Ethics as a philosophical framework for exploring literary influence. Just as friends can lift us up or drag us down, Booth says, so can the books we read.
Booth points out that when we open ourselves up to a book and let it penetrate us, we make ourselves susceptible to it. This can be a problem if it has noxious things to say because in that instance the book proves itself a false friend that can lead us astray. But if we spend all our times entirely shutting ourselves off from the power that books exert, reading them only suspiciously or with critical detachment, then we don’t change. As Booth puts it,
If we thus refuse to be taken in by any new appeal, we may enjoy at least the pleasure of feeling and appearing sophisticated. But of course each of us will emerge from the next story as just about the same critic, sophisticated or unsophisticated, who went in, comfortably unharmed but no better off than if we had spent our time playing checkers.
What Booth recommends instead is
a two-stage kind of reading, surrendering as fully as possible on every occasion, but then deliberately supplementing, correcting, or refining our experience with the most powerful ethical or ideological criticism we can manage.
In stage one, we should first allow ourselves to be delivered over to a book bound hand and foot (to use a Georges Poulet analogy that I discussed in a recent post). ”To understand a book well enough to repudiate it,” Booth writes, “I must have made it a part of me; I will have lived my hours with it, as friend, and to that degree I will have already experienced an ethical change, for better or worse.”
In stage 2, meanwhile, which can happen after we have finished, we should step back and examine its ethical impact. It is our moral responsibility to do so and also to teach our children and students to be ethical readers.
Of as Booth puts it,
We must both open ourselves to ‘others’ that look initially dangerous or worthless, and yet prepare ourselves to cast them off whenever, after keeping company with them, we conclude that they are potentially harmful. Which of these opposing practices will serve us best at a given moment will depend on who ‘ we’ are and what the ‘moment’ is.
I’ll conclude today’s somewhat abstract post with concrete answers that Booth received when he asked people to “name fictions that changed your character—or made you want to change your conduct.” The answers ranged “all over the moral landscape.” Note how, in their stories, the respondents often undertook a quick ethical assessment of the impact:
I was told that “Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park made me swear not to be such a mouse—to stand up to people the way Fanny Price stands up to Sir Walter [she means Sir Thomas Bertram] toward the end.” I am told that “Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest led me to tell off my boss at the hospital and walk out on him.” I am told that “Balzac’s Pere Goriot made a real difference in how I thought about and treated my father.” I hear a tearful claim that “Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon made me feel really guilty about how I had been thinking about blacks these days—you know, with all the headlines about crime—and I’ve really acted different toward them, you know, when I meet them in stores and things like that.” I hear the claim that “Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine made a Christian socialist of me—at least for a while.” “Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon not only knocked any temptation to fellow-traveling out of my head; it firmed up my notions to what kinds of moral corner-cutting I would allow myself.” “The Man in the Grey-Flannel Suit got me out of advertising.” “The continuation of Andre Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just and Elie Wiesel’s The Forest turned me back into an observant Jew; before that I hadn’t been inside a synagogue for ten years.” “Seeing Alex Haley’s Roots on TV turned me into an enthusiastic genealogist.” “Reading Ayn Rand’s works when I was working in my first job led me, I’m sorry to say, to cancel all of my gifts to philanthropies—I bought a convenient version of her ‘me-philosophy’ hook, line and sinker.” “Walter van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-bow Incident—especially the movie—turned me into a premature civil rights’ marcher, or I guess you could say that it finished the job started by Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit. “ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass led me to face my anger, to understand something about it, and to feel pride in what I might accomplish.” “Amanda Cross’s Death in a Tenured Position changed by views of the plight of female academics, and changed my behavior toward those in my department.” “Reading Santayana’s The Last Puritan was the major influence in my becoming a professor.” “Reading Chinua Chaebe’s Things Fall Apart radically changed my view of—and my teaching about—African colonialism and its aftermath.” “Gone with the Wind made me behave much differently towards southerners; I had previously dismissed them as vicious or stupid.” “Reading Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind made me decide to be a historian.” “Reading Kerouac’s On the Road led me to drop out of college and go ‘on the road’ for a year, imitating as much of his main character’s behavior as made sense to me” (this informant, a graduate student, has since written an M.A. thesis tracing the complex values of that powerful influence, which he says continue even now that he is more critical of Kerouac’s various implied preachments). “To my permanent regret, I stumbled on Reage’s Story of O when I was in my early teens, and in a sense I’ve never recovered from it: the awful revelation that such things—even if only imagined—coud be in the world depressed me for months, and even now thinking about it depresses me.”