Maybe Franzen’s Wrong

Apr 1 2012 @ 5:46pm

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And maybe we don't actually need to read stories to make sense of our world. Maybe they are part of our problem:

Like God, the self requires a story; it is the account of how each of us accrues and sheds attributes over seventy or eighty years—youth, vigor, job, spouse, success, failure—while remaining, at some deep level, myself, my soul. One of the accomplishments of the novel, which as we know blossomed with the consolidation of Western individualism, has been to reinforce this ingenious invention, to have us believe more and more strongly in this sovereign self whose essential identity remains unchanged by all vicissitudes…

This is all perfectly respectable. But do we actually need this intensification of self that novels provide? Do we need it more than ever before?

I suspect not. If we asked the question of, for example, a Buddhist priest, he or she would probably tell us that it is precisely this illusion of selfhood that makes so many in the West unhappy. We are in thrall to the narrative of selves that do not really exist in the way we imagine, a fabrication in which most novel-writing connives. Schopenhauer would have agreed. He spoke of people 'deluded into an absolutely false view of life by reading novels,' something that 'generally has the most harmful effect on their whole lives.' Like the Buddhist priest, he would have preferred silence or the school of experience, or the kind of myth or fable that did not invite excited identification with an author alter ego.

(Photo: A tourist reads a book with an Amazon e-reader Kindle at the sandy beach of Anjuna on February 1, 2012 in Goa, India. By EyesWideOpen/Getty Images.)