What Stories Are For, and How to Read Them

Let yourself come into the world of the story
(Image by notquitemax, via Unsplash)

When we encounter a spirituality that differs from our own and seems alien, [Islamic scholar Louis] Massignon explained, instead of simply dismissing it, we must ask ourselves how the writer came to have these ideas. We must acquaint ourselves in a scholarly fashion with the social, political, geographical, historical and philosophical context in which he lived and worked. And we must not leave this text, Massignon insisted, until we can honestly say that, in such circumstances, we would feel the same. In this way, he explained, we can broaden our horizons and make a place for the other in our minds and hearts. It is an ekstasis, a disciplined “stepping outside” of the self in a sensitive but informed identification with another — not an exalted trance, but an intellectual process that enables you to open your mind and heart to something that seemed initially alien.

Interview with Karen Armstrong, New York Times

I came across this interview yesterday because of its lovely title, “The Novel That Made Karen Armstrong Quit Her Reading Group.” I knew nothing about Karen Armstrong, but there’s a story imbedded in that title that I wanted to know about. And as with any good browsing, what you find is different than what you came for.

Toward the end of the interview, Armstrong loops back to this opening idea of imaginative entry into the world of another:

Novels can serve a moral function by enabling us to enter the lives of others imaginatively. It is an ekstasis in which we step outside the self, leaving it behind, and embrace a different perspective — realizing, for example, the attractions of evil at the same time as we are made to recoil from it. Novels force us not only to face but to experience the terror of illness, sorrow, poverty and infirmity. They enhance our compassion by compelling us to feel with others, taking us out of the comforts of solipsism.

The questions that a writer is interested in addressing have to be met by a reader intrigued and open to addressing them as well. When we put a book down and don’t finish, the flaw may lie with the writer, who hasn’t done the work of putting a life fully enough on exhibit to capture our imagination or intellect. But the flaw may also lie with the reader, in not setting aside their own assumptions and expectations to fully enter the world of the story.

I had that experience this morning, sitting down to review a short story opener by one of the members of my writing group. When I first opened it, I read the first paragraph too rapidly, it didn’t slow me down enough to really comprehend what I was about to engage. That flaw, I think, was mutual: the tone of the story was a little flat and didn’t invite slowness, but more importantly, I didn’t come to it in the spirit of full engagement. It took me ten minutes or so to slow down enough to really read it, to sit inside the narrator’s experience for the next hour.

I think that maybe we need to go through the equivalent of warm-ups before we sit to read fiction. To fully prepare ourselves to leave the passive TikTok feed and pinging texts of the swirling days, and to embark on the quiet, rigorous investigation of another’s life.

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