This is the third column in the third round of Reading Room, a collective column on reading and life. In each round, the contributors respond to a prompt chosen by the group. The current prompt is: Can a work of literature change your mind?
“Can a work of literature change my mind?” What am I supposed to say? The more I think about this question, the hazier I find its terms. If anything, for me, talking about books—about stories, about arguments, about poems—and seeing how different people’s responses to a single work can be has helped both build community and catalyze animosity.
I’ve been talking about books my whole life—as an undergraduate and graduate student, as a professor and as a writer. But these days, the people I talk about books the most with are my small children. And the kind of reading children do before and when just entering literacy—absorbed, concentrated, vague staring at pages—has come to seem to me a more viable and shocking example of the transformative effects of writing on one’s life than a strictly literary revelation. My four-year-old wants to know more about Vikings: we read an Usborne book. My two-year-old is curious about numbers: we consult Lowly Worm. We talk about what a burial mound is, what death is, what a wound is. We talk about the number of balloons, planes, bugs. I do not think there are thirteen pilots; my child does.
Reading with children is a clear example of how books prompt learning, and how reading books with other people can prompt more than that—social connection, closeness, familiarity and estrangement. But early literacy, far more than the reading of adults, also depends on a translator: a reading person who can help you navigate the opaque signs you know have meaning. And as much as the reader guides and shapes the learner’s mind, the child’s new readerly mien is not entirely beholden to its teacher’s plan for it. Very early on, I realized that what I call reading to children—aligning the words on the page with the pictures and using both to explain the story—isn’t exactly what happens when you read to children. When my first son was very small, he was fascinated in particular by Goodnight Moon, and now, as I read the same copy to my younger son, I remember a specific gesture my older son would make, from about five months on, gently brushing the tiny circular drawing of a mouse with his fingertip. Every time I read that book to him, he reached out his finger and stroked the little disc of dark ink around the tiny white mouse. What was he doing? I didn’t linger over that page in particular, and I don’t remember ever rubbing the drawing with my own finger. It was a readerly gesture, and it came entirely from him.
Now, when I think of those earlier reading experiences, I notice the differences in my younger son’s reading habits. He has never touched the mouse, has never shown any interest in it. But every time we get to the last page of the book, with its picture of a bedroom at rest, he points to the drawing of the little dollhouse lit up from within with yellow light and says, oddly, “Octopus.” It’s not a drawing of an octopus, it’s a house. But he is obsessed with shadows in his room, and often calls them “little octopuses,” so here, in the baby bunny’s room in a children’s book from 1947, is a shadowy octopus. In his reading, guided by me but not entirely shaped by me, the octopus is an integral part of Margaret Wise Brown’s book.
Rafael’s essay lands on two distinct emotions, both of which are connected to self-help literature and the sentimental tradition. In both White Fragility and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, guilt and sympathy work to draw white readers in to consider the plight of people unlike them. But, as Rafael argues, both books present an aesthetic solution to a political problem. If one could simply feel right, Rafael suggests these books say, one would implicitly solve or have solved the problems of racism, of slavery. A first question might be something like: Do these books actually change how people feel? Rafael suggests no; instead, they do something like draw readers’ attention to their own sympathetic suffering, stoking the feeling of superiority or white allegiance that remains underneath the surface-level disavowal or self-critical distancing. But another question needs to be: Can we ever predict how a given book will change an individual person’s feelings? Do two people ever read a book in the same way? Where is my octopus, and where is your mouse?
Again, the shape of this question is clearest when we think of children reading. At the end of his essay, Rafael reminds us of the enslaved child Topsy’s plotline in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “It is only through coming to know Topsy, the little Black girl mistreated all her life, that Ophelia transforms. Reading converted Ophelia to the cause; love for a concrete person converted her.” But Topsy’s story is stranger than this gloss makes it out to be, for as soon as she enters Miss Ophelia’s household, she begins learning to read, too:
The child was quick enough. She learned her letters as if by magic, and was very soon able to read plain reading; but the sewing was a more difficult matter. The creature was as lithe as a cat, and as active as a monkey, and the confinement of sewing was her abomination; so she broke her needles, threw them slyly out of the window, or down in chinks of the walls; she tangled, broke, and dirtied her thread, or, with a sly movement, would throw a spool away altogether.
Harriet Beecher Stowe presents Topsy’s “magical” literacy as being at odds with her resistance to the “confinement” of sewing, only surprising when one concedes that reading, like sewing, usually requires its practitioners to keep still. Elsewhere in the novel, Stowe is fuzzy on the relationship between self-awareness and reading, but here, she suggests there is something rewarding in reading for the “active” and “lithe” Topsy that sewing cannot offer. And while it’s true that Topsy’s literacy is brought about through the sympathetic ministrations of both little Eva and Aunt Ophelia, we see in these lines the possibility that Topsy’s reading, like my children’s, is guided but not entirely shaped by others, by her temperament, by her own view of the world and by her implicit understanding of why reading is a greater gift than needlework. Reading gives her access to reserves of thinking and feeling that are invisible to her captors.
Later, against her mother’s instructions, we discover that little Eva has continued to give Mammy reading lessons, and that she makes a religious argument for the enslaved people’s literacy. But again, Topsy is marked out as a complex reader. Stowe’s mission in her novel is to argue for a loose connection between Christian piety and readerly devotion, but in the character of Topsy, she has (whether she meant to or not) written a reader who resists piety. Arguing with Eva over Miss Ophelia’s reading lessons, Eva’s mother says, “Topsy is the worst creature I ever saw!” In fact, it seems to me that Topsy resists Stowe’s moralizing sentiment almost entirely. Topsy, more than any of the novel’s other characters, sees the racist hypocrisy of the world in which she lives. Little Eva urges Topsy to be good, but Topsy knows how goodness is measured in this world:
“If I could be skinned, and come white, I’d try then.”
“But people can love you, if you are black, Topsy. Miss Ophelia would love you, if you were good.”
Topsy gave the short, blunt laugh that was her common mode of expressing incredulity.
It’s no surprise that Stowe doesn’t quite know what to do with Topsy at the novel’s end. Topsy has been changed by her reading, yes, but not in a way that makes it possible for her to enter fully into the American world around her. She is sent back to Vermont with Miss Ophelia, and proves to be such a good study with the Bible that she is eventually shipped off to “Africa” for a missionary life “teaching the children of her own country.” Never mind that Stowe’s imagination for her Black characters ends not with the detail of moving to “Vermont,” but in an asymmetrically indistinct “Africa.” Never mind that Topsy’s ending disavows her famously etiolated personal story, substituting an imagined African “country” for her own striking suspicion that she wasn’t born but “grow’d.” And while Topsy’s revolutionary reading habits—habits that accommodate her active and restless mind in ways that sewing does not—are transformed into a docile Christian utility, it is not one that finds a home in America. Is it reading as such that gives Topsy’s story this strange shape? Or is it the restless mind at odds with an idea of reading as necessarily morally instructive?
Books, like parental translators, can guide, but never entirely shape a reader’s experience. While some readers got nothing more from Stowe’s novel than an opportunity to cultivate their own sympathetic hearts, others might have seen in the novel a different invitation. Perhaps the sentimental novel does not always enjoin its readers to feel a certain way, but can also show its readers how someone else might feel. This has become hard for us to see today because in Stowe’s novel the narrator interjects, offering guidance or suggestions about how we ought to feel. Our own ability to follow such guidance depends on how far that point of view is from our own, historically contingent one. In Stowe’s case, perhaps, that distance has become unbridgeable. We cannot trust her. But complex characters like Topsy show us we cannot ignore the work of Stowe’s novel entirely. And, more, suggest we should not underestimate the power of books to reveal to us the truth that other minds have inner workings.
It is worth noting that guilt and sympathy are not the same. Guilt comes from a religious sense of failure, and ideally it contains within its orbit a desire to set the failure right. It might be called atonement or penance: guilt carries with it an understanding of recompense’s necessity, no matter how limited that recompense might be. This part is too often left out of our current concept of guilt, which is almost always an entirely negative—and secular—emotion, one that contains within it only a sense of suffering that rebounds onto its feeler, not onto the potential victim of the feeler’s mistake or misprision.
Sympathy is different; it is social, and it is almost always feminized. I’m not sure sympathy is feminine, mind, but it is feminized: the feeling of interest and investment that feels motherly, alloyed to a deep and unsettling sense of ownership. It’s the feeling of the bad mother: the overinvested mother, the mother who sees her children as an extension of her body, as her property. But sympathy is also cute (as in the critic Sianne Ngai’s use of the term): an uneasy, simpering coo, one that is both suffocating and inured to its own predatory violence. This is how sympathy can poison us. The fear of sympathy isn’t just a fear of the failure to see another person clearly. It’s also the fear that our own perspective—faulty, blinkered and limited as we know it to be—has in it the seeds of the violence we say we condemn.
Sympathy and guilt’s entanglement often lead people to stop at the sentimental, without fully owning up to the guilt in a way that offers its promised atonement. Atonement is not enough, especially if it tips into the kinds of self-satisfied self-recrimination that is the hallmark of White Fragility’s ethos. But it can be a start, especially a start at seeing the ways we are complicit in the systems we purport to revile.
The trouble with books is not that they cannot change minds, or that they can change them for the worse; the trouble is that a book’s power to influence us is unpredictable, irreducibly dependent on the mind it happens to meet. After all, the same book might enthrall the one reader and appall another, incite you to action and shock me into paralysis. One thing we learn when we talk about books with others—whether children or critics—is the irreducibility of these differences between one reader and another, between my mind and yours.
To return to Topsy one last time, Stowe’s suggestion at the novel’s end is that she is chastened, turned missionary. But is this so? Does Christian sentiment soften Topsy into something like domesticity? We don’t know what Topsy reads at the novel’s end, but we do know reading is part of her work: “the same activity and ingenuity which, when a child, made her so multiform and restless in her developments, is now employed, in a safer and wholesomer manner, in teaching the children of her own country.” Where does that interjection “in a safer and wholesome manner” come from? To my ear, it is Stowe placing a habitual limitation on Topsy’s narrative energy. In some ways indifferent to the work that books can do, Stowe can’t quite accept that Topsy’s work might remain revolutionary, if undetectably so. Stowe’s own plans for Topsy, her efforts to enlist her for the sake of her Christian cause, cannot entirely erase Topsy’s readerly intelligence—active and ingenious, and, we remind ourselves, perhaps skeptical and revolutionary.
Image credit: “Kept In,” Edward Lamson Henry