I met a man in a Chicago bookstore a while back who told me that he had not wanted to read my novel The Secret Life of Bees, but his wife had made him read it anyway. As he put it, he generally abstained from all "Southern novels," coming-of-age stories, books on race relations and anything with adolescent girls in it.
It was March, wind-whipped and cold. The man was wearing a black cashmere overcoat and a tie printed with what looked like tiny artichokes. It brought to my mind Pablo Neruda's poem "Ode to an Artichoke," the vegetable "armed for a skirmish."
I live in Charleston, S.C., land of politeness and charm, where you would as soon swallow your tongue as say what he'd said. I reminded myself that in "Ode to an Artichoke," Neruda suggests that beneath the prickliness is a delicate green heart. I smiled at the man. I asked him to explain himself. I wanted to know what invisible thing compelled a person to read a certain book and turn away from another. Well, he said, he was a 49-year-old executive who'd grown up in a privileged family in New England, and my novel is about a 14-year-old girl who grows up in an underprivileged family on a peach farm in the South. "There couldn't be two more different worlds," he said.
Did it come down to this -- the discomfort of differences? Do we shy away from books that threaten to tamper with our perceptions and prejudices? Do we unwittingly gravitate to works that we suspect will affirm our own points of view? Are books meant to be places of refuge or remonstration? I've noticed that most people tend to go through life preserving their differences from others. Did the tendency spill into our reading?
"Was reading my novel painful?" I teased.
"Actually, it was," he said, "but painful in a good way." He went on to tell me about the surprising connection he'd made with adolescent Lily and the African American women in the book, these people with whom he supposedly shared 600 degrees of separation. "The characters got under my skin," he confessed. "What can I say? I feel disposed now to the South, to black women and to white girls who need their mothers."
With these words, he revealed to me a reason to write fiction: because it creates empathy.
As a relatively new novelist, I had never fully examined the noble and ignoble reasons for doing what I do. I had begun to write novels because of a fierce, self-serving impulse in my own heart. I had not considered the potential in a book for felt communion, the bright largesse of intimately participating in the lives of other people. I find myself pondering these mysteries now as the holiday season rushes up once again to pull on our sleeves with its urgent behest for love, beneficence and peace on Earth, goodwill to men. I consider the way we sit with a book for hours, days, weeks perhaps, seeing the world through someone else's eyes, feeling it with someone else's heart, how in one of the most mysterious transactions possible in human experience, the sufferings, ecstasies and yearnings of someone else become our own.
When I remember the man in the bookstore, who for the first time in his life got to be a 14-year-old girl looking for a home, plus a whole pantheon of African American women caught in the idiocy of a hateful time, it makes me want to confess something, even though it is sure to lift the cynic's eyebrow: While, as a writer, I want to affect the reader's mind -- to educate and enlighten -- what I wish for even more is to jolt the reader's heart. I want my words to open a portal through which the reader may leave the self, migrate to some other human sky and return "disposed" to otherness.
Is it possible that the experience of empathy is really nothing more, and nothing less, than the breakthrough of an awareness that we humans share an intrinsic unity? Are we indulging in what Ralph Waldo Emerson called a "larger imbibing of the common heart"?
In Emerson's "common heart," every person's "particular being is contained and made one with all other." It is the place of our deep and common belonging. Albert Einstein must have been referring to this place when he said that we are part of a whole and any attempt to experience ourselves as separate is an optical delusion of consciousness. Walt Whitman, who never seemed to suffer from this optical delusion, expressed the interconnection poetically when he wrote: "I am large, I contain multitudes." We all do.
I want to believe that while we may sometimes read in the misguided pursuit of preserving our separation, there is a greater impulse inside us that compels us to read in search of the common heart.
I read The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, in the late 1960s. First published in 1899, it is a brief, disturbing novel about Edna Pontellier, a privileged wife and mother who lived -- wouldn't you know? -- in the South. Choked by social conventions and domestic obligations, she harbored a feminist passion to express herself, to define herself on her own terms at the cost of not less than everything. At that young, unformed time in my female life, I believed Edna was nothing like me, nothing at all. I was terrified of her. I do not recall ever being plunged so ruthlessly into another's life as when I read The Awakening. I felt the world as Edna Pontellier felt it, and it splayed open my heart, filling me with compassion for women who pine for themselves and waking me to my own submerged longing for voice and self-identity.
Since then I have come to love Kafka's words: "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us." In a world that often seems to lurch toward losing touch with its inherent kinship, I cannot think of better gifts this holiday season than stories that possess such beautiful blades.
To Kill a Mockingbird; Cry, the Beloved Country; Sophie's Choice; Love Medicine; The Namesake; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Disgrace; The Seven Storey Mountain; Beloved; The Poisonwood Bible; Night; The Book of Ruth; When the Emperor Was Divine; The Known World; The Bell Jar; "A Doll's House"; Eudora Welty's Thirteen Stories; The Scarlet Letter; In the Time of the Butterflies; Lying Awake; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; Death Comes for the Archbishop; The Grapes of Wrath -- each of these, in its own way, offered me passage through a difficult province of human experience, delivering me to a place of shared belonging.
There are thousands of such books. Books with reconciling powers. Books that return us to the immense common heart of the world. Here, in the urgent season, they give me reason to hope. *
Sue Monk Kidd is the author of "The Mermaid Chair" and "The Secret Life of Bees."