Harvard scholars talk about books that changed their lives – Harvard Gazette
Siegel took a philosophical approach to the matter, reframing it slightly to discuss what literature can do. “What can make a book change your life? »
“A book can juxtapose points of view, each of which may seem compelling, emboldening, disgusting, or frightening on its own, but other dimensions and consequences of each perspective are revealed when you see them together, in one space. This 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, particularly perception. “Because viewpoints 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 characters at all, as I was less interested in the emotional dimensions of relationships or how to “fill a character”. … The only function of the dialogue form, I thought, was to create a convenient way to work through several possible answers to the question that shapes a line of inquiry, and to avoid constantly having to say “Whichever comes first answer…” and so on.
“Decades later, I’ve found that this book comes to life much more easily for students if you give space to the interpersonal dynamic between the characters. Take Socrates: are his declarations of humility sincere or is he a power-seeking moron? These questions are not directly about “what he says”, when you take his words at face value. But if you make space for such questions in the discussion of the book, you allow to see the interface between a person and a point of view. It is a way of giving full weight to the points of view. They allow the reader to not only reflect on the position, but to imagine what it might be like to actually believe these things and act on them mindlessly, out of habit.
“A different way for a life-changing book is to describe possible ways of being in the world that a reader didn’t know 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 exaltation that can come from controlling people’s perceptions solely through words, mind, gestures and other embodied means of imitation – not just in moments isolated in conversation, but in full social roles. Felix Krull feigns illness to miss school and escape military service, and eventually becomes a trusted man. (I remember secretly wondering if a confident man felt more confident than others, and if so, if that would be a good way to feel that way.)
“In retrospect, I believe the narrator’s startling observations about perception spurred my interest in this subject,” Siegel said.
She quoted Mann:
What a wondrous phenomenon…when the human eye, that jewel of organic structures, focuses its wet glow on another human creature! This precious jelly, composed of elements as ordinary as the rest of creation, asserting, like a precious stone, that the elements count for nothing, but their imaginative and happy combination counts for everything – this piece of slime embedded in a bony hole … is capable, as long as the spark of life remains awake there, of throwing such beautiful aerial bridges over all the chasms of strangeness that stretch between man and man!
“When I read those sentences about perception in the early 1990s, I never imagined that I would write loads of essays and two books on this subject,” Siegel said.