In Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, we have another largely autobiographical author avatar. In reminiscing about a life marked by voracious reading, Larry Morgan states:
Anyone who reads, even one from the remote Southwest at the far end of an attenuated tradition, is to some extent a citizen of the world, and I had been a hungry reader all my life (p. 254).
There are three main ideas that we can draw from this passage. First, that readers, by flexing the muscles of their imaginations, and becoming immersed in the world that the author creates, become citizens of the world. It was Mark Twain, in The Innocents Abroad, who said that travel is “fatal to prejudice;” Larry Morgan had already been stretched beyond the mesas of Albuquerque by reading Milton and Dante. Second, Stegner is engaging a deep and broad literary corpus or canon. Stegner is not easily contained by –isms:
Although admitting that Stegner's fiction is “almost invariably set in the western United States,” Richard H. Simpson of the Dictionary of Literary Biography believed that his “main region is the human spirit” (Gale Literary Databases, Contemporary Authors).
He is no mere genre writer. Third, the question which deserves the closest analysis: how is a hungry reader different from an avid one, or a merely attentive reader?
The idea of literature as nourishment can take us far in our analysis. Ideas are not merely ephemeral; the books we read shape our very neuronal structure. Neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, in his Reading in the Brain, proposes that far from being a tabula rasa, our brains use neuronal recycling to learn to read. In reading, we adapt brain regions originally primed for other tasks (object recognition, for instance): astoundingly, the same brain regions decode the written word, whether it’s represented by the Roman alphabet, Egyptian hieroglyphs, or Japanese kanji.
In short, the hungry reader’s body is physically changed by the act of reading. This can be the first step in building a counterargument to Gregory Currie’s “Does Great Literature Make Us Better?” If literature shapes our bodies, is it such a great leap to assume it shapes our souls?
|Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog|
What about Recapitulation’s Bruce Mason? When he goes to law school, he embarks on a self-improvement reading program. It is debatable whether it makes him a better person. It’s worth examining his reading list, what the mature Bruce Mason calls a “random sampling of the wildest variety:” On the Sublime, Heroes and Hero Worship, The Origin of Species, The Voyage of the Beagle, Totem and Taboo, The Seven that Were Hanged, Also Sprach Zarathustra. Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche: here we have a microcosm of great thinkers and philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These books did not necessarily make Bruce a more moral, or even a happier person, but they certainly, inarguably, changed him.