Why Read Novels: On “Sinning” Without Sinning
Picture a gorgeous, young lady lost in her thoughts, sitting on a night train, as she waits for it to leave St. Petersburg. She is not Keira Knightley, and her hair is dark. But she is indeed Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s true heroine: an unhappy woman, going through a rough patch in her married life. She is also uneasy about having left her only son behind while she heads for Moscow to visit her brother.
When the train is about to roll, an older lady, spotting an empty seat in front of Anna’s, requests to be admitted in her company. Anna acquiesces and they quickly strike up a relaxed conversation, prompted by their having friends in common. The older lady knows that Anna is married; perhaps she senses her gloominess. Be that as it may, she talks at length to Anna about Count Vronsky, her son, a bachelor endowed with all the virtues and beauties that a woman can dream of. It seems like an impossible feat for Anna, who listens in the dark, sad eyes almost shut, not to daydream a bit (or more than a bit) about this handsome officer.
Chance has it that when the train arrives the next morning in Moscow, golden boy Vronsky is the one who opens the door of the compartment. His mother, not wasting a second, introduces him to Anna. They shake hands. He is flabbergasted by her beauty. She is a tad confused, but quickly composes herself, apologizes, and goes in search of her brother, who is waiting for her somewhere in the platform. As she elegantly walks toward him, however, she cannot resist her curiosity and turns round, only to find Vronsky’s eyes, which have never left her silhouette, finding hers, fixed (his eyes) on them. One could say—though it may sound simplistic—that this was the point of no return for what became one of the most famous and bitter love affairs in the history of fiction.
Let us now indulge in an exercise that would have been impossible for Anna Karenina but that is feasible for any of us, the readers of Anna Karenina. Imagine Anna climbing on board having already read Tolstoy’s novel. In this hypothetical scenario Anna—the wife, the mother—would have been endowed with ampler tools to resist what she was going to find upon arriving at the platform in Moscow: “A Temptation Named Vronsky.” Even before that, when the Count’s mother helped herself into the seat in front of her and volunteered her siren song, Anna (the reader) could have thought, “I have been here before,” in the words of Charles Ryder upon revisiting Brideshead. And she could have therefore plugged her ears, or at least have tied herself to the ship of reason, like Ulysses.
The above is only one in a myriad of examples; and the following is an idea that can apply to all of them, whether they involve a potential adultery or anything else that matters.
When we read a story—be it Anna’s or any other worthy one like those that can be found in the classics—we enrich our own life with a borrowed one; we gain the opportunity to profit from someone else’s failures and strengths; we live without living, “sin” without sinning. We take advantage of the knowledge of all the apparent benefits of pursuing a tempting yet wrong course of action—the lessons of experience—without going through the bitter disadvantages of actually doing wrong. In the meantime, we rejoice with actual rejoicing and suffer with actual suffering. This is the peculiar reality of vicarious experience.
Reading allows us to self-inject an antidote that will perhaps immunize us or, at least, better equip us to fight the otherwise deadly effects of real venom: sin. The small, daily intakes of fictional serum—the world within a novel’s pages—will prepare us to better face the dramas and challenges of real life.
Of course we can really sin by reading a book: a given novel can be the wrong choice for a given person. But this is an altogether different question. I am assuming here that my vicarious experimenter has in the first place been prudent when he or she chose a certain novel.
The activity of reading good books—if conducted fruitfully—is a salutary investment. We set aside the best of times for ourselves and, in the end, for those we love as well. The theory of vicarious experience will perhaps offer the reader of this column a further reason to be a reader for life.
Santiago Legarre is a Professor of Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law at Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina and a frequent visitor of Notre Dame’s campus.