Sunday, October 26, 2008

"A Window to Another's Soul"

My title comes from a quote by a brilliant novel with the unlikely title of Harvey & Eck. It's written by Erin O'Brien, and in its way it's a breathtakingly enchanting latter-day epistolary novel. Which is what the novel that's usually acknowledged to have been the first English novel was, too (Samuel Richardson's Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded). Ah, letters written over a period of time and strung together in chronological order can unravel a wondrous tale. I intend to write more about Harvey & Eck elsewhere, but right now I want to zero in on a quotation from the book, and say a few words about why the passage in question is so incredibly dazzling in its "message." I do want to situate the quote, though, to set it up, as when someone sets up a scene from the preview of a movie.

The novel consists of letters written by a young woman who happens to be pregnant and angry (for reasons that I won't spoil for my readers here). She begins to write letters to a "stuffy" librarian, and she actually mails them to him. But she doesn't give away her telephone-book identiy (for lack of a better term - I was going to say "her true identiy," but that won't do, because that's exactly what we get in her letters). In any case, she signs her letters as "Harvest Moon" (which in time is shortened to "Harvey"). The person she is writing her letters to is a certain Timothy J. Ecklenburg (later shortened to "Eck"). The "stuffy" librarian begins to write letters to Harvey as well, except he can't send them, since he doesn't know her telephone-book identity. To make a long story short, let me just say that in the process of reading Harvey's letters as well as in that of writing his responses, Eck undergoes a significant change. The correspondence with the angry young pregnant woman humanizes him and ends up giving him a new lease on an emotionally satisfying life. At a fairly late point in the novel, our librarian says a wondrous thing about books:
There is nothing further from calm than a shelf full of books. For these are the screams and the shouts and the moans of humanity, quiet only on the outside. Each volume might appear dignified and solemn as it sits between its brethren, but all of that changes as soon as you open the pages and look through a window to another's soul.
This is as good a description of what a book is as it gets. For, indeed, what we find in a book while we are reading it is a human being talking to us from the depths of his "soul" to the depths of ours. Much has been (and more will be) written about the art of reading, but we can't get away from the essence of it. When I read, I am in touch with another human being in a most intimate way. I let him or her enter my mind and take over my person, for the duration of the reading. The French critic Georges Poulet has a brilliant essay about this called "Criticism and the Experience of Interiority." In this essay when Poulet talks about criticism he is actually talking about what happens in the act of reading. "Every word of literature is impregnated with the mind of the one who wrote it." Which is why "to understand a literary work . . . is to let the individual who wrote it reveal himself [or herself] to us in us" (italics Poulet's).

There is more to reading than meets the eye. If we are reading the way we should, with the same spirit with which (according to Emerson) the text was written in the first place, we become one with the writer. As Nobokov used to be fond of saying, good readers identify not with the characters in a book, but with the writer who wrote it. It is easy to do this with Erin O'Brien's splendid epistolary novel. I couldn't put it down, as the saying goes. And if you happen to pick it up, you might just have the same experience.