Fragonard's "The Reader" (photo: grewlike)

In his 2010 Nobel lecture, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa spoke of the seditious, liberating power of literature, fiction in particular. It is not a just and open society that produces literature; it is literature that produces a just and open society, Vargas Llosa said.

The thought itself is emancipating. Rather than the raised clenched fist, a nose in a book might be a better symbol of human solidarity and the struggle for freedom. That the image might make us smile only speaks to a certain bad habit of regarding reading as passive and unproductive. What practical work is done by the still and silent reader? We need physical action. Tote that barge, lift that bale!

Our relationship to readers reading in our presence is awkward. The reader is mysterious. She sends few physical cues of the sort we search for, consciously and unconsciously, in others. We abhor a lack of information about those in our midst, so we fill in the blanks. Seeing a reader alone in a restaurant, for instance, some no doubt think, “The poor soul must be lonely.” The reader, though, has ten thousand friends.

Of course, we have public spaces in which reading is not suspicious: libraries and bookstores, of course, but airports and airplanes, trains and buses, too. I suppose in these latter cases our acceptance stems from the knowledge that we’re all trapped there, that physical activity is constrained, that we’re all strangers on a train.

In his Confessions, Augustine spoke of the impatience we might feel in the presence of someone (Ambrose, in Augustine’s case) silently absorbed in a book.

Often when we came to his room–for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of visitors should be announced to him–we would see him thus reading to himself. After we had sat for a long time in silence–for who would dare interrupt one so intent?–we would then depart, realizing that he was unwilling to be distracted in the little time he could gain for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamor of other men’s business.

We may seem to withdraw from others when we read, as friends and spouses of obsessive readers have protested. It’s an illusion, though, because a reader is, in fact, deeply and imaginatively connecting to humanity.

This is one of Vargas Llosa’s points:

Literature creates a fraternity within human diversity and eclipses the frontiers erected among men and women by ignorance, ideologies, religions, languages, and stupidity.

The historian Lynn Hunt also acknowledged the profound role literature played in extending our capacities for empathy with others. Hunt believes the novel led to the very concept of “human rights” and set the stage for the 18th Century egalitarian revolution:

What might be termed ‘imagined empathy’ serves as the foundation of human rights rather than of nationalism. It is imagined, not in the sense of made up, but in the sense that empathy requires a leap of faith, of imagining that someone else is like you…Novels generated it by inducing new sensations about the inner self. Each in their way reinforced the notion of a community based on autonomous, empathetic individuals who could relate beyond their immediate families, religious affiliations, or even nations to greater universal values.

I still remember the moment at age three when books made me theirs forever. My mother and older brother were reading their books together at the kitchen table. They told me a little about the stories they read. That those little black marks on the pages that smelled so good could make such worlds discoverable was a wonder. But I couldn’t read. Those worlds were closed to me. A revolution was born in me at that moment. I would be denied entry to the book no longer. I would read.

And so I have. And so do you. With Huck on his raft and Emma Bovary in her carriage, we are, when we read, anything but still. We ride with them to new worlds, and there, with Vargas Llosa, we:

…defend the liberal democracy that, with all its limitations, continues to signify political pluralism, co-existence, tolerance, human rights, respect for criticism, legality, free elections, alternating in power, everything that has been taking us out of a savage life and bringing us close—though we still never attain it—to the beautiful, perfect life literature devises, the one we can deserve only by inventing, writing, and reading it.