Literary critic, Harold Bloom, says the purpose of reading is not to make people better. As a Mormon, I find that hard to accept. Mormons are commanded to read the scriptures regularly and urged to peruse other uplifting books in the hope such reading will make us fit candidates for exaltation. Bloom’s statement provokes a valid question: Does reading improve us? And if so, how?
What Bloom does believe reading can do is to develop our self-awareness. He tells us:
Shakespeare will not make us better, and he will not make us worse, but he may teach us how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves. Subsequently, he may teach us how to accept change, in ourselves as in others, and perhaps even the final form of change. (Western Canon, p 31)
Teaching us how to accept change in ourselves and others does sound like improvement to me.
I like the idea of using increased self-awareness as a measuring stick for the worth of what we read—or view. Since every “self” is different, a book or film meaningful to one person may not work at all for another. I’m currently reading Tom Rachman’s novel, The Imperfectionists, a collection of vignettes about the staff of a large international newspaper headquartered in Rome. I found myself identifying with two of the characters—the nerdy copy editor and his dissipated friend.
Herman, the copy editor, does his unglamorous job well and enjoys the respect if not the friendship of colleagues. He has a long-time marriage, a daughter, and grandchildren. Yet Herman feels his life has been less meaningful than that of Jimmy, the charismatic school friend who planned to be a writer, but spent his life underemployed, while drinking and chasing women. When Jimmy visits, Herman finds the friend he thought so talented is unable to compose a coherent paragraph let alone write the book he’s talked about for 40 years. Unable to work and broke, Jimmy hopes his daughter will take him in.
I recognized Herman and Jimmy as two parts of my personality—the dependable, non-flashy person who is usually in charge, and the restless seeker after fame and fortune—generally relegated to the cellar of my being. I don’t know if that’s how the author intended readers to take these characters, but I enjoyed the flash of insight I received about my life. Did it make me a better person? Maybe not, but I enjoyed seeing two facets of my personality in print. The story made me appreciate my Herman facet which is usually in charge and grateful for the Jimmy facet that occasionally leads me into adventure.
Maybe entertainment and glimpses of self-awareness are all we should ask of literature. Self-improvement probably requires more effort than a good read can provide.