Literary Doors

“A book isn’t supposed to be a mirror. It’s supposed to be a door!” says Fran Lebowitz in the documentary Pretend It’s a City (2021). I particularly liked this episode in the series where we hear Lebowitz presenting herself as a reader, because she tells things that resonate with me. I never get tired of hearing the idea that the more we read, the richer we become. (Lebowitz, then, must be one of the richest people in the world for, the last time I read about her, she holds eleven thousand books in her home and keeps on going from one book to the next.) The more we read, the bigger our worlds become. This is my approach to literature, so I rarely think of hopefully finding works that would make me feel like they are mirroring my world or my views. This mentality has always been rather silly to me to a certain extent.

There is certainly nothing wrong in aspiring to read works that you can identify with—that resonate with your thoughts and feelings. Nothing is lovelier than reading or hearing a person’s experience with a book, where she might tell you that she could truly identify with the characters and saw herself in them. This, of course, is one of the most important aspects that makes many literary compositions timeless. It also obviously creates a type of unity where a reader might feel understood, even if it is a solitary reading experience. Unfortunately, I do not find myself as part of this type of reading experience often, if ever, and do not take pains to do it. It is not about my indifference; I just lead a very boring, uneventful life as a person. How can someone like that identify with anything? There is always sympathy towards a story’s characters – after all, I do not have a heart of stone – but identifying with complicated or incredible characters in stories is a very rare thing for me.

However, this has never bothered me—the feeling of not seeing myself in a book even though I do try to engage myself with literature as much as my mind allows. Even if it did bother me a little, I would still never actively strive to find myself in fiction which would be, like I said, silly. I am afraid this might make me forget that there is a whole world out there that with different examples can teach me and make me appreciate this world of ours so much more. This has become particularly important for me because this attitude develops our sense of sympathy which is one of the most important qualities in a reader. What then draws me to different fiction, especially, is the hope of broadening my world, meaning my knowledge of it, my knowledge of different ways of seeing it and my perceptions of things that are beautiful in it.

I would be a somewhat oblivious person if in one point I had not decided that literature is the subject I want to focus and immerse myself in. Many novels that have particularly broadened my world view and made me observe others sympathetically but also critically, have raised historical, philosophical and psychological questions. Of course, I should probably also read more history, philosophy and psychology. But don’t these subjects become more valuable and understandable when there is a story to keep us intrigued? To show us complex persons trying to live in this interesting, awful yet beautiful world; and to give us characters that exemplify the issues in these subjects? Literature is as valuable as these because novels might combine them and create affecting stories that teach about human nature and the different environments in which human nature grows and struggles. Literary works, then, raise important social questions and teach just as much—if we’re willing to take in the authors words a bit more deeply than just reading to know what happens in the end.

What do I mean by beauty then? Or, broadening my perceptions of what is beautiful in this world? Sadly, I am no philosopher (so snobbish philosophers, please do not take this as a definitive answer); but I will try to give a somewhat simple view of what I mean by beauty. Beauty to me is experiencing something as pleasurable and feeling special contentment in what I am seeing, reading or hearing. When I think of something as beautiful, it puts me in a tranquil state of mind in which I am pleased and focus solely on what I am seeing, reading or hearing, appreciating it to a greater extent. Many novels that I think have been wonderfully written do two things in my opinion: with skillful artistic wording, they become beautiful compositions that have created also a high reverence for the written word in me. Also, they portray our physical world, for instance, in such a way that makes me marvel at nature and city landscapes in a contented way, and appreciate things such as a nice home, flowers and any object that I might feel is important to me—like a book, for example. When I was younger, I certainly did not find the type of beauty in these that made me also truly appreciate them. Literary works, then, also can make anything around us appear beautiful and if one reads enough artistically composed novels as well, their perceptions of beauty may develop in a way where beauty is more easily seen in the surroundings.

It is all about opening doors—into a broader knowledge of this world and how it might be presented. I do not judge people who mostly read in hopes of finding “mirrors” in books – which I can understand since we have always looked for stories that might affect and inspire us. But for me, the most important thing in reading books is developing sympathy and therefore I strongly encourage to explore with different literatures. History, philosophy and psychology, for instance, can also help, but again, stories more movingly immerse us readers.

While my love for books arises from trying to learn from them and become more aware of what this world of ours contains, as I expressed, my sympathy for characters still always exists. Through this mentality I have come to see the world differently while I sit at home in a smaller city in one of Europe’s northern countries that still, for some reason, seems to me incredibly far away from the rest of the world. While the vast world out there seems overwhelming sometimes, nevertheless, the knowledge of it is more suitable than trying to find myself in books. Instead of looking for mirrors, in appreciation of their writing and characters I will keep opening doors and try enriching my life with others’ stories.