Difficult Reading in the Age of Narcissism

It’s hard to imagine amid all the commercial clamoring for our attention, with a mediascape in which impossibly attractive women routinely doff their clothes, and some will even have sex on camera, where the finest specimens of athletes, men (and increasingly women) who take innate gifts voyeurs on the other side of the screen can only fantasize about possessing to peaks probably new to the human race with the advent of nutritional and sports science, struggle against one another in dramatic skirmishes for stakes that dwarf our lifetime net worth—it’s hard to imagine with all this just a few clicks away that there could be anything worth wresting our attention away from the screen for, something worth exercising the discipline involved in actually directing our own attention, taking charge of what we might take the time to deliberately decide will be gratifying to a part of us deeper and more enduring than the flashy whims of any shallow and single-minded industry, no matter how adept that industry’s executives have grown over the last half decade at giving us no choice in the matter.

I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for the first time. It’s for a graduate course I’m taking on representations of the dead in literature. Though I read Mrs. Dalloway some years ago, I never bothered with Lighthouse because I knew Woolf used stream-of-consciousness narration and having slogged through Ulysses in my early twenties I was of the mindset that the technique was an experiment that failed outright. Maybe it’s because I’m a more mature reader; maybe it’s that Woolf takes greater care in orienting her readers within the flood of perceptions and emotional turmoil that is her characters’ inner lives than does Joyce or Faulkner in their ever-so-dense works in the same style. To the Lighthouse is exquisite. And every time I lose myself to the tide of impressions and the figurative estrangement of recognizable feelings I want to call everyone I know and insist they all read it. But then reality sets in and I begin sorting through the ranks of my acquaintances for that rare individual who has the patience and who has managed to develop the sensibility to appreciate such trifles.

Last night a friend texted me. He couldn’t recall the title of a book he’d read as a teenager, one he wanted to recommend to his daughter. Embarrassingly, I recognized the plot elements he used as clues, not from my own experience reading but from the TV miniseries the book had inspired. One more on my to-read list—there’ll never be a shortage. When I texted him back that I might check out the book when I was done with grad school and all the “heavy lifting” it called for, he confessed he was struggling with Crime and Punishment. “C n P,” I responded, “is on my to-read list too.” He can only take ten or so pages at time of the great masterpiece. And he takes frequent breaks with the likes of Tom Clancy. No shame in that, I thought; once in a while you have to take some guilty pleasure. World War Z anyone?

Empathy is on the wane in American youth. A meta-analysis led by Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and published last August found that college students, whose scores on self-report tests have been steadily dropping over the past 30 years, have experienced a particularly dramatic decrease in concern for others just in the last decade. Thirty years ago coincides with the ascent of the radically individualistic ideology of the right in politics. But what has been going on in the past ten years to make the decline accelerate? Well, for one thing people are reading less fiction. Raymond Mar of York University in Toronto and his colleagues published research last year that showed how many stories preschoolers read is strongly associated with how well they understand the emotions of others, and the more fiction adults read the higher they score on those tests of empathy.

In the wake of consciousness-raising efforts like the documentary Supersize Me and the book Fast Food Nation, a culture of foodies has arisen and seems to be growing. The unfettered free market and the ideal of consumerism is bad for our health, it seems. We need to protect our children from marketing and preservatives. But the narcissism at the heart of our economic ideology—the me-first ethos, the trained impulse of what can it do for me now?—corrupts more than just our bodies. We don’t only require nutrition and exercise for our bodies; we need it for our minds as well, and the parts of our minds that have been wasting away in recent decades more than any others are the parts that allow us to direct our own attention rather than letting the TV tell us what’s important and the part that we as a species seven billion strong especially can’t let atrophy, the one that makes us aware not only of the people standing next to and around us but also of those people in Bangladesh who are losing their homes to rising sea levels, the people in Cambodia who go blind making the 2 dollar t-shirts we buy at Wal-Mart, the inner city kids our government can’t afford to keep healthy, much less educate, because they believe they must continue sniffing the farts of billionaires who we supposedly rely on to give us jobs but who in reality are employing the most wretched of Cambodians and paying them minuscule fractions of slave wages.

How to get our lazy asses off the couch of narcissism and instant gratification, to whip our minds that have been turned to mush courtesy of Kim Kardashian and Michael Vick (some role models for empathy those two) into shape for the sake of each other? As an English teacher, I think I need to take some personal responsibility on this front. There are some basic techniques that can be applied to reading fiction, even difficult fiction, that can make it more accessible and more gratifying. First—and I’m addressing this to my colleagues in the department—completely ban from your mind, at least on first reading, anything you’ve ever learned about literary theory. Most of these theories can easily be shown to lack validity, and people were enjoying fiction long before they were thought up by the cranks who sponsor them. Concentrate instead on the characters and the language. Good writers give us all the clues we need into what kind of people they’re writing about, and our feelings toward these people are what lies at the heart of our appreciation of their stories. Rather than stand back and try to decode the story as if it were some type of puzzle, allow yourself to connect with or hate the characters—or both, as the best ones never let you quite decide—based on what they do in the story. As an example of this, I knew I wanted Llewelyn Moss in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men to escape when he went back to the caldera to bring the dying Mexican drug runner some water. That’s a guy you can feel for. That's a guy who would feel for you.

But a lot of great stories don’t involve the type of fireworks you find in McCarthy or Palahniuk. Nor should they. Most of what are considered literary writers focus on the types of experiences common to us all, only they explore them with uncommon language. This isn’t done for the sake of being impressive; it’s done to make us see these experiences anew—or to encourage us to see them at all, so prone are we anymore to discount them, never even think about them, because we’re busy watching the game or attending to The Situation.