It is a rare writer who can use sci-fi not simply to chart an escape from reality, but as a pointed reflection of the most minute and magnified experiences that frame and determine the lives of those who live in black skin. Octavia E. Butler was one such writer. This year marks 20 years since the publication of one of her most inspired and radically profound novels, Parable of the Talents. This is a book which saw America through the “double consciousness” which W.E.B. Dubois asserted that only black people have cultivated, and which black women have sharpened to an extreme degree. An America that is bloody, unyielding, violent and tentatively united to mask a history never reckoned with.
Julie Sedivy looks at the development of social intelligence over centuries by comparing medieval literature with novels of today. Medieval literature discusses what characters do with almost no consideration of how those characters felt about their actions or their motivations. Current literature (by which she means fiction—short stories or novels), in contrast, often focuses more on characters’ feelings than on their actions. This difference illustrates what Sedivy calls “Western literature’s gradual progression from narratives that relate actions and events to stories that portray minds in all their meandering, many-layered, self-contradictory complexities.”
Literature certainly reflects the preoccupations of its time, but there is evidence that it may also reshape the minds of readers in unexpected ways. Stories that vault readers outside of their own lives and into characters’ inner experiences may sharpen readers’ general abilities to imagine the minds of others. If that’s the case, the historical shift in literature from just-the-facts narration to the tracing of mental peregrinations may have had an unintended side effect: helping to train precisely the skills that people needed to function in societies that were becoming more socially complex and ambiguous.
Sedivy writes that in medieval literature people are “constantly planning, remembering, loving, fearing,” but without the author drawing much attention to such processes. These early authors present characters’ mental states through direct speech or gestures. “The direct reporting of emotion was fairly common, but mostly kept short and simple (“He was afraid”).”
This approach to emotional representation began to change between 1500 and 1700, “when it became common for characters to pause in the middle of the action, launching into monologues as they struggled with conflicting desires, contemplated the motives of others, or lost themselves in fantasy.” The soliloquies of Shakespearean characters such as Hamlet illustrate this change, which early literature specialist Elizabeth Hart attributes to the advent of print and the increase in literacy it prompted. The ability to reread and study printed passages prompted “a new set of cognitive skills and an appetite for more complex and ambiguous texts.”
Among these new cognitive skills was “the ability to accurately grasp the thoughts and emotions of others, or mentalizing ability.” Mentalizing ability grew along with the emergence of the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sedivy reviews psychological research into how reading current fiction enhances readers’ mentalizing ability. She concludes that literature that trusts readers’ ability to recognize clues and draw inferences about characters’ motivations most effectively nurtures and sharpens readers’ understanding of characters’ mental states. The benefits are most obvious when study participants read “ literary passages that described characters’ thoughts, desires, or beliefs.”
And this process of reading challenging literature to improve mentalizing ability is circular: Reading challenging literature sharpens one’s mentalizing ability, and that improved mentalizing ability makes one an increasingly skillful reader of literary characters’ inner lives.
When an author expresses deep confidence in a reader and creates a space in which the reader can, from the depths of her own social imagination, lower her consciousness into the body and experiences of another, the effect can be transformational.
This article by Joseph Epstein is a good follow-up to the article above. “By the bookish life, I mean a life in which the reading of books has a central, even a dominating, place.”
Nobody has read, or can read, everything, and by everything I include only the good, the beautiful, the important books.
After admitting that there exists no definitive list of the good, the beautiful, the important books, Epstein continues, with much humor, to expound on the joy he has found in the bookish life.
Tyler Sage on Ross Macdonald: the man who added psychological insight to the hard-boiled thriller
While for Raymond Chandler and other early noir writers “the detective story was a tool for laying bare the unspoken realities of American life, in which dreams of prosperity and freedom collided with corruption, abuse of power and modern social conditions,” Ross Macdonald turned such concerns inward: “his deepest obsession was with the horrors of family life and the way those horrors form us when we are young.”
Sage quotes from one of Macdonald’s notebooks: ““Hell lies at the bottom of the human heart, and you find it by expressing your personality.”
Sage here analyzes the 18 Lew Archer novels Macdonald wrote over 27 years, “a handful of which are as good as the genre has to offer.”
Literary Hub is running a series called A Century of Reading comprising lists of books that defined each decade from the 1900s “to the (nearly complete) 2010s.” Series writer Emily Temple explains:
Though the books on these lists need not be American in origin, I am looking for books that evoke some aspect of American life, actual or intellectual, in each decade—a global lens would require a much longer list. And of course, varied and complex as it is, there’s no list that could truly define American life over ten or any number of years, so I do not make any claim on exhaustiveness. I’ve simply selected books that, if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade—both as it was and as it is remembered.
Since I came of age in the 1960s, this one particularly caught my eye. I’d say Temple has nailed the decade pretty well with her 10 choices. And beneath the chosen books is a HUGE list of other relevant books from that time period. So many memories—and suggestions for further reading—and rereading.
© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown