This recent piece in the LA Review of Books seized my attention, and as a consequence I’m reading Uses of Literature. It is one of those rare books of literary criticism, if you are fascinated as I am by the phenomenon of reading, that thrills quite as much as the books under its consideration.
Of all the reasons I read, Rita Felski captures, in the following fragment, possibly the most important-to me anyway-reason to read, that of disburdening ourselves of those blind spots that come to us through birth, class, gender, colour, sexuality, or any other of the many ways we arrive at who we are.
The Lacanian picture of the child gazing entranced at its own idealized self-image thus falls notably short as a schema for capturing how literature represents selves. The experience of reading is often akin to seeing an unattractive, scowling, middle-aged person coming into a restaurant, only to suddenly realise that that you have been looking into a mirror behind the counter and that this unappealing-looking person is you. Mirrors do not always flatter; they can take us off our guard, pull us up short, reflect our image I. Unexpected ways and from unfamiliar angles. Many of the works we call tragic, for example, relentlessly pound home the refractoriness of human subjectivity, the often disastrous gap between intentions and outcomes, the ways in which persons commonly misjudge themselves and others. We can value literary works precisely because they force us – in often unforgiving ways – to confront our failings and blind spots rather than shoring up our self-esteem
Rita Felski, Uses of Literature. Blackwell Publishing, 2008