Why A Book Speaks To You

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 29 2012 @ 3:23pm

Novelist Tim Parks uses systems-based psychology to explain the highly varied responses to a work of art. Why do some people love, and others hate, a novel or writer? The writing we love, it turns out, tracks the intimations of our lives — the questions, dilemmas, and categories impressed upon our consciousness since childhood. They resonate with the conversations we've been having, with others and within ourselves, far before we ever pick up a particular book. It answers a question we have already been asking:

What I’m suggesting then is that much of our response to novels may have to do with the kind of “system” or “conversation” we grew up in and within which we had to find a position and establish an identity.

Dostoevsky is always and immediately enthralling for me. The question of whether and how far to side with good or evil, with renunciation or indulgence, grabs me at once and takes me straight back to my adolescence. And how I loathe the end of his books where the sinner repents and gets on his knees and sees the error of his ways in an ecstasy of self-abasement. I love Dostoevsky, but I argue furiously with him. Same with an author like Coetzee in Disgrace. I feel locked into the same conversation. Beyond any question of “liking”, these books are important to me.

On the other hand, when I read, say, the Norwegian writer, Per Petterson, who again is chiefly concerned with fear, vulnerability to the elements and the terror of being abandoned by those we have most trusted, I immensely admire his writing, but find it hard to care. When asked on two occasions to review Petterson I read every word carefully and with pleasure and gave the novels the praise they very much deserve, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to read another book of his. His world, the disturbing imagery he draws on, the rhythm and pacing of his sentences, are far removed from my concerns. Affinities, as Goethe tells us, are important. Few works of art can have universal appeal.