Harvard scholars on books that changed their lives – Harvard Gazette

Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy

Siegel took a philosophical approach to the question, slightly rewording it to discuss what literature can do. “What can make a life-changing book?”

“A book can juxtapose points of view, each of which may seem compelling, emboldening, disgusting, or frightening on its own, but further dimensions and consequences of each perspective are revealed when you hold them together, in a single space. That space is the book.

“Novels with many characters are the usual example of such spaces,” said Siegel, whose own work focuses on the philosophy of mind and epistemology, especially on perception. “Because points of view are personified, the relationships between them are interpersonal relationships. But the book where I first encountered this deepening of insight was not a novel, it was Plato’s ‘Republic.’ I treated as incidental the fact that the ‘views’ were articulated by characters. I didn’t focus on the interpersonal dynamics between the characters at all, as I was less interested in the emotional dimensions of relationships or in how to ‘fill out a character. … The only function of the dialogue form, I thought, was to create a handy way to work through multiple possible answers to the question that shapes a line of inquiry, and constantly avoid having to say ‘According to the first answer…’ and so on.

“Decades later, I have found this book comes alive to students much more easily if you give space to the interpersonal dynamics between the characters. Take Socrates: Are his statements of humility sincere, or is he a jerk on a power trip? These questions don’t pertain directly to ‘what he’s saying,’ when you take his words at face value. But if you make space for such questions in discussing the book, you make it possible to see the interface between a person and a point of view. This is a way of giving full weight to the points of view. They allow a reader not only to think about the position, but to picture what it might be like actually to believe these things and to act on them unthinkingly, by habit.

“A different way for a book to be life-changing is to portray possible ways of being in the world that a reader hadn’t known were possible. In my early 20s, the book that did this most powerfully for me was Thomas Mann’s unfinished novel, ‘Confessions of Felix Krull,’ An extended meditation on the relationship between personal freedom and the exhilaration that can come from controlling people’s perceptions purely by words, wit, gesture, and other embodied means of impersonation — not just in isolated moments of conversation, but in entire social roles. Felix Krull feigns illness to miss school and escape from military service, and eventually grows into a confidence man. (I remember secretly wondering whether a confidence man feels more confident than other people, and if so, whether this would be a good route to feeling that way.)

“In retrospect, I believe the narrator’s stunning observations about perception prompted my interested in that topic,” said Siegel.

She quoted from Mann:

What a wonderful phenomenon it is … when the human eye, that jewel of organic structures, concentrates its moist brilliance on another human creature! This precious jelly, made up of just such ordinary elements as the rest of creation, affirming, like a precious stone, that the elements count for nothing, but their imaginative and happy combination counts for everything — this bit of slime embedded in a bony hole … is able, so long as the spark of life remains alert there, to throw such beautiful, airy bridges across all the chasms of strangeness that lie between man and man!

“When I read these sentences about perception in the early 1990s, I would never have dreamed that I would write piles of essays and two books on this topic,” Siegel said.

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