Thursday, March 22, 2012


Medieval towns were not organized on a grid or with avenues radiating symmetrically from a center. They were organized theologically, divided up according to the Seven Virtues, or the Twelve Apostles, or the Ten Commandments. Their labyrinthine streets were designed to teach spiritual lessons.
I get a little thrill when I learn tidbits like that, but where does the thrill come from? There is some vertigo in it: the dizzying sense that my world is more precarious than it seems, like standing on a fragile bridge with nothing, but nothing, stretching far, far below.
It's also the thrill of encountering a world other than mine. History is a bore to many, but history well told is as exciting as an absorbing fiction. It's like handling the gizmos of science fiction or meeting the beasts of fantasy. It's a world of delights all the more delicious because it is my world, younger.
And it's the thrill of the future, because if the world was once very different, it will be yet again.

Leithart, Peter. “Delightful History.” Touchstone Mag. March/April 2012:
        6. Print.

Friday, March 9, 2012


But sympathy in novels need not be simply a matter of the reader’s direct identification with a fictional character. It can also be driven by, say, my admiration of a character who is long on virtues I am short on (the moral courage of Atticus Finch, the limpid goodness of Alyosha Karamazov), or, most interestingly, by my wish to be a character who is unlike me in ways I don’t admire or even like. One of the great perplexities of fiction-and the quality that makes the novel the quintessentially liberal art form-is that we experience sympathy so readily for characters we wouldn’t like in real life. Becky Sharp may be a soulless social climber, Tom Ripley may be a sociopath, the Jackal may want to assassinate the French President, Mickey Sabbath may be a disgustingly self-involved old goat, and Raskolnikov may want to get away with murder, but I find myself rooting for each of them. This is sometimes, no doubt, a function of the lure of the forbidden, the guilty pleasure of imagining what it would be like to be unburdened by scruples. In every case, though, the alchemical agent by which fiction transmutes my secret envy or my ordinary dislike of “bad” people into sympathy is desire. Apparently, all a novelist has to do is give a character a powerful desire (to rise socially, to get away with murder) and I, as a reader, become helpless not to make that desire my own.
Franzen, Jonathan. “A Rooting Interest.” The New Yorker. 13 Feb. 2012:
        60-65. Print.