Empathy is a fitful business, a struggle you face each day, each hour, trying to slip the prison of yourself. But the bars bend, I think, every time you read a great novel; the more characters you live with, see into, the deeper your reach into the human condition. George Eliot’s life turned on this belief. “The necessity of growing out of such self-centeredness is the theme of ‘Middlemarch,’ ” writes Rebecca Mead in “My Life in Middlemarch” (Crown, 2014). So we too adopt that for our theme today: books that illuminate other books and, in the bargain, ourselves.
If Eliot’s work is the candle, Mead’s is the bright sconce reflecting the flame. “Middlemarch’’ has so much to teach since it’s “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” as Virginia Woolf famously said. For the uninitiated (I envy you your first read!) the story unfolds in a provincial city in England and traces the arc of several marriages, touching on politics, medicine, and more, in the years 1830-1832.
Mead, who writes for the New Yorker, has produced a sort of bibliomemoir, a supple mix of light scholarship on the novel and its author (whose common-law marriage inspires), plus travelogue (she visits various Eliot haunts) plus personal reflection (Besides sharing experiences of stepmotherhood, both Mead and Eliot hailed from the provinces).
“Middlemarch” has spoken to Mead at each read. At 17, she most identified with Dorothea, the ardent young seeker who disastrously weds an older pedant who “is no better than a mummy,” as one character says. At middle age, when failure and missed chances invariably pile up, Mead feels more kin to Dr. Lydgate, whose ambitions are thwarted through his own obtuseness, and his beautiful, but fatefully shallow wife. Insights abound, parallels align; the point is that we read great books to learn about ourselves.
Nathaniel Philbrick is an acolyte of another work of genius, and I loved his “Why Read Moby-Dick?’’ (Viking, 2011). Though “Middlemarch” was a huge hit in its era, “Moby-Dick” sold poorly in Melville’s lifetime — it’s sole big fan seems to have been a prescient Nathaniel Hawthorne — finding its sea legs only after World War I. Philbrick tacks at the story from many points — historical, psychological, theological — arguing that whenever a new crisis grips our country, this epic “becomes newly important.” Ahab was read as Hitler 70 years ago, BP in the Gulf of Mexico four years back. The Pequod is our ship of state, perennially braving threats.
The ocean, though, is timeless: “it is only in the terrifying vastness of the sea that man can confront the ultimate truths of his existence,” wrote Melville. “Moby-Dick” is thus both existential and national in theme: Melville unites, as it were, the states. The book is “nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts and ideals” that led to the American Revolution and the Civil War. Published just after the Fugitive Slave Act, it’s no accident that a white whale causes all the trouble. Also notable, and modern-seeming, is the multicultural crew (Queequeg the Pacific islander, Fedallah the Persian, Tashtego the Wampanoag). And existentialism rises again: Whiteness can be read as the terrifying blankness of godlessness, of death. In whiteness, insists Ishmael, is “the demonism in the world.”
This next book explores fiction as lifelong sustenance, both personal and social. “On Conan Doyle: Or, the Whole Art of Storytelling” (Princeton University, 2011) is by Michael Dirda, a book critic for The Washington Post and member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the venerable Sherlock Holmes society. Like Mead and Philbrick, he was imprinted early; there’s a lovely scene of him as a fifth grader, reading in a recliner in his Ohio home, drinking Orange Crush as rain beats outside: That’s when “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” he recalls, “changed my life.” Conan Doyle, whose medical training came from one of the day’s greatest diagnosticians, was all about looking hard at what’s around you. Dirda’s book is similarly pointillist, trenchant, atmospheric. But what struck me most is how one corner of literature can bring people together — the Irregulars’ meetings have cameos — and how this links Dirda “to an otherwise vanished era of literary bonhomie and frivolity.”
There’s a boatload of bonhomie in Nick Hornby’s “Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books’’ (Believer, 2013). This volume of “acid-free” criticism — Zadie Smith calls Hornby the “European Ambassador of Goodness” — reprints a decade of charmingly funny, idiosyncratic columns from The Believer magazine, wherein the British novelist recounts what he’s read that month. Hornby unabashedly loves Anne Tyler and Dickens, “David Copperfield” especially. Completing it “left a devastating hole in my life.” He goes on jags: books about Hollywood, rock music, everything by Muriel Spark. He also writes about how most of us actually read, alternating heavy books with light, nonfiction with fiction. Refreshingly, he admits when he spaces out, skims, or just can’t finish the damn thing. “We are never allowed to forget that some books are badly written; we should remember that sometimes they’re badly read, too.”
Let’s get omnibus, again, with “Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014). Wendy Lesser, founder of The Threepenny Review, is more oracular in tone than chatty Mr. Hornby (she has a PhD in English from Berkeley). And she divvies up her book into chapters on novelty in fiction (inventiveness is no substitute for authorial empathy) and character/plot (character is preeminent, for we care what happens to people only after we know who they are, to paraphrase Henry James). In our era full of screens, the “why” of reading has a luminous advocate here. It’s all about reward and delight, and Lesser champions many beloveds, including Henry James, Dostoyevsky, “Don Quixote,” and “Wolf Hall.”
Great literature became “not a luxury but a necessity” in the censorship-laden Islamic Republic of Iran of the ’90s, writes Azar Nafisi, a former literature professor, and author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books” (Random House, 2003). Here, Ophelia got cut out of stagings of “Hamlet,” and some of Nafisi’s students get arrested for having “Western attitudes.” So one follows Nafisi’s clandestine book club — seven female students, some in chadors, come to her apartment every Thursday morning in 1995 — with fear and admiration. Working off Xeroxes of banned books, they parse the meanings and pleasures of “Lolita,” “Daisy Miller,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “The Great Gatsby.” Cultural perspectives flourish. The women note that, had the adulterers in “Gatsby” lived in Iran, they would’ve been subject to stonings. Reading Austen, one jokes, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife.”
If you’ve ever been in a book group, you know that personal revelations are prompted from the book talk, and empathy grows on paper and off. In “The End of Your Life Book Club” (Knopf, 2012) this is truer than ever, as author Will Schwalbe falls into a club de deux with his mother, as she is treated for pancreatic cancer. Whether they’re reading Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead” or Alice Munro’s “Too Much Happiness” or John O’Hara’s “Appointment in Samarra,” many topics resonate including, most movingly, mortality. Mary Anne Schwalbe was a great reader and a person of deep fellow feeling: After heading the admissions office at Harvard, she worked in a refugee camp in Thailand and helped start a library in Afghanistan. What George Eliot wrote of Dorothea applies to her and, come to think of it, all books that enlarge our humanity ever and again. Dorothea wasn’t famous, she wasn’t a saint. “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive.”Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine. email@example.com.