“I Am Ryder”; or, My Life as Somebody Else

by Jason Tougaw

A Conversation about Novel Reading, with Gloria Fisk

16- margaret oliphant

Victorian critic and novelist Margaret Oliphant routinely worried in print about the dangerous effects novel reading might have on young people and women: “There is nothing more violently opposed to our moral sense, in all the contradictions to custom they present to us, than the utter unrestraint in which the heroines of this order are allowed to expatiate and develop their impulsive, stormy, passionate characters. We believe it is one chief among their many dangers to youthful readers that they open out a picture of life free from all the perhaps irksome checks that confine their own existence.” –“Our Sensation Novelists,” The Living Age, 1863

Does reading a novel change you? Can a novel make a person more compassionate or cosmopolitan, as philosopher Richard Rorty suggested in the late eighties? Or more foolhardy, even delusional, as Victorian public intellectual Margaret Oliphant was fond of warning her contemporaries? It’s a huge pleasure to welcome Gloria Fisk to californica, for a conversation about how literature and science might help us answer these questions in 2014.


In a response to Dave Eggers’s new novel, The Circle, David Mikics published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled “In Praise of (Offline) Slow Reading”—timed to publicize his recent book, Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. The article made me think of conversations you and I have had about some of our favorite books. Mikics makes a claim that’s pretty difficult to substantiate, though I think we’d both like to agree with it:

“And there’s a link between selfhood and reading slowly, rather than scanning for quick information, as the Web encourages us to do. Recent work in sociology and psychology suggests that reading books, a private experience, is an important aspect of coming to know who we are.”

In my gut, I’m sure the private experience of reading books shapes us–our feelings and actions, but also the range of possibilities those feelings and actions may take. But this would be hard to prove—though it’s very easy to recite platitudes and generalizations about the power of reading. I’m hoping you and I can find some concrete answers, or at least hypotheses. In the Op-Ed, Mikics doesn’t name the work in psychology and sociology he mentions, but there’s been a lot of it recently. Before we get to that, though, I want to ask you a question about a favorite book we have in common: Kazuo Ishiguro‘s The Unconsoled.

For me, The Unconsoled is both “slow” and a page-turner. Its protagonist, Ryder, wanders around an unfamiliar city, subject to a surreal logic that throws him (and readers) off kilter relentlessly. It takes commitment to remain in Ishiguro’s world, where characters mutate, geography reconfigures, and time expands and contracts. If you get hooked, though, it’s hard to put the book down, because the ever-expanding set of obstacles creates a form of suspense I’ve never experienced with any other book.

So, my question. What does this novel do to you? Does your love of it have something to do with the link between reading and selfhood, as Mikics suggests? Is it possible to describe this relationship in any concrete way?


Unconsoled1Oh, yes.  I love this connection you make between The Unconsoled and the proposition that Mikics gets from Eggers: that social media marks the antithesis and possibly the end of literary reading as we know it. And the passage you cite from the review is perfect, because it contrasts the privacy that good books seem to give their readers with the nonstop publicness of living online. There’s something paradoxical in that logic, and the paradox seems important, because it runs like a thread through these arguments that contemporary critics make for the continued relevance of literature–and the humanities, more generally—in the 21st century.

Those arguments begin (as Eggers seems to, too) from the worry that that technology and global markets will render literature neither necessary nor wanted. Against that possibility, reading is credited with two contrary benefits: On one hand, it engages readers with other people who would too easily seem remote because they come from other countries, with different identities; on the other hand, literature enables readers to burrow more deeply into the particulars of our personal experience. By burying our noses in novels while our laptops alert us to messages that we ignore for the moment, we learn more about non-fictional people as we also come, as Mikics says, “to know who we are.”

It’s possible that these two consequences of literary reading—one social, the other private—are perfectly congruous, but the congruity seems too complicated to be taken for granted.

And Ishiguro toys with it beautifully in The Unconsoled. The novel was published in 1995, well before everybody’s mother was on Facebook, and Ishiguro’s interest in technology doesn’t become explicit (as far as I know) until a decade later, when he published his novel about a clique of clones, Never Let Me Go. But The Unconsoled is, I think, all about this: To what degree (or under what conditions) does the experience of good art make us more attuned to the social world around us, and to what degree does it make us solipsistic, self-centered, private?

This question isn’t directly about the social-media-vs.-literature debate, or about the way that literary reading shapes the way we live in the non-fictional world. But you and I have jokingly used Ryder (the protagonist of The Unconsoled) as our model when we have to travel through a social or professional situation where it’s opportune to remain unruffled by other people. Ryder would be a very smooth operator on Facebook, I think. I also think Ishiguro was prescient as well as brilliant about the ways that contemporary life makes us all more oblivious to each other as we’re also in more constant contact.  And wouldn’t it be nice if the novel could work as an antidote to that?  [Dreamy sigh.]


I love the idea of Ryder as a smooth operator on Facebook. What makes you say that? He’s such a confused operator in the novel! You and I have made a mantra of “I am Ryder” because he’s so good at rolling with the confounding behavior of the people around him. He doesn’t sweat it, but he doesn’t withdraw either. He participates with perplexed irony. Is that why you think he’d be a smooth operator?

I hadn’t really thought about the private and social effects of literature as contrary. It seems possible to resolve the conflict. If solitary reading attunes a person in psychological terms, maybe that will result in more attuned relationships with other people. That’s what Richard Rorty argued, though I’ve known plenty of avid fiction readers who don’t seem particularly reflective or empathic. Big generalizations about literature’s value always feel unsatisfying. I’d love to identify some concrete explanations for what reading does to us.

So here’s my proposal. What if you find a passage or two from The Unconsoled (or another book) that illustrates your point about art’s influence? And what if I find a couple of excerpts from the psychological and sociological research Mikics mentions? Then we can see if the novelist and the scholars are examining similar questions–and, hopefully, identify some concrete propositions on the subject.


Good idea!  Always go back to the text, right?

I think when we say, “I am Ryder,” we’re kind of saying, “I know that other people are thinking things that are upsetting for me to contemplate, but I’m going to proceed as if they aren’t while I know that they are.” Because Ryder occupies the world in an impossible way: He can see into other people’s minds with perfect clarity, but he is also completely oblivious to their reality. Or, maybe more precisely, he knows them intimately and, at the same time, they are strangers to him.  So he can see what they’re thinking but he doesn’t need to respond to it, or to worry about it excessively.


Kazuo Ishiguro

I admire Ishiguro so much for creating this effect, which seems brilliant to me, illuminating so many things about the ways we live now. The first time it happens in the novel (I think) is the scene where Stephan chauffeurs Ryder around town in the rain; Ryder’s a visiting pianist in an unnamed city, where he is held to a schedule that he doesn’t understand; Stephan is a young man among his hosts.

As Stephan drives, he confides in Ryder that he is a pianist, too, and he asks Ryder–very shyly, hesitating to impose–if Ryder would listen to him play. Ryder declines, saying that he is exhausted and he just wants to go bed at the end of a long day of talking to the townspeople. But he notices that Stephan seems “unduly disappointed, perhaps even mistaking my reply for some subtle refusal”– and this is a feeling that is familiar to us, I think; it’s part of what we mean when we say “I am Ryder.”   Ryder is always asked to do more things than he can possibly do, and he always knows that he is letting somebody down in the process.  We teach at a public institution in NYC; we know this feeling!

And then Ryder moves away from this very realistic moment into something strange:

“The rain continued to fall steadily as we traveled through the night-time streets.  The young man remained silent for a long time and I wondered if he had become angry with me.  But then I caught sight of his profile in the changing light and realised (sic) he was turning over in his mind an event from several years ago.  It was an episode he had pondered many times before–often when lying awake at night or when driving alone– and now his fear that I would prove unable to help him had caused him once more to bring it to the front of his mind.  It had been the occasion of his mother’s birthday…”

Ryder can’t know these things; he is a character in the novel, trapped in the plane of reality that it creates.  But he acts like an omniscient narrator who can float above the other characters, traveling freely among their consciousnesses, recalling their memories and knowing their thoughts.

And this is what makes me think he would be an adept–or at least comfortable–presence on Facebook. In order to post a status update, we have to construct our several hundreds of “friends” into an audience that wants to hear whatever we’re going to say.  And in order to do that, we have to be hyper-aware of the interior lives of our friends but also somewhat oblivious to them, because in a pool that big, there will always be somebody who thinks that our pictures of our vacation or our political ramblings are stupid, offensive, painful, or depressing in some way.  And if we think about that, we will never say anything–so, instead, we say, “I am Ryder!”


The Unconsoled is often compared to Kafka, because of the ways Ishiguro blends dream logic with the more rational restrictions of waking life. It’s a fair comparison, but it doesn’t capture the innovation of Ishiguro’s elegant style. Ryder is a first-person omniscient narrator–an impossible thing to be. That’s how he achieves what you describe–the experience of seeing into other’s minds, but remaining oblivious.

To a certain degree, all fiction gives readers an analogous experience–a vicarious experience of what’s it’s like to be another person, one who doesn’t exist. This vicariousness is central to the “recent work in sociology and psychology” Mikics’s mentions, research that tries to find empirical ways to measure literature’s effects on readers.

I dug up some of the research that Mikics seems to be drawing from. I can’t know if he read these studies in particular, but they seem indicative of the kind of research he has in mind.

The results of one study, published in the journal Brain Connectivity suggests that  “One possibility for increases in somatosensory cortex connectivity is that reading a novel invokes neural activity that is associated with bodily sensations.” The study was conducted by neuroeconomics professor Gregory S. Bern and his colleagues. They call their theory ‘‘embodied semantics’’ (Aziz-Zadeh and Damasio, 2008), building on previous research that shows that the somatosensory cortex—translation: part of the cortex that deals with bodily feeling—becomes active when people read metaphors that invoke tactile sensation. Their hypothesis is concrete (!), if tentative: “It is plausible that the act of reading a novel places the reader in the body of the protagonist, which may alter somatosensory and motor cortex connectivity.”

In other words, when we imagine the actions of a protagonist, our brains rehearse them. In that sense, our synaptic networks are altered. We are changed. The authors of the study asked people to read Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii, which is action packed, offering plenty of opportunity for “embodied semantics.” Then they used fMRI technology to scan their brains. The title of the article is “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain.” The conclusion is that changes can be observed for several days after reading Harris’s novel.


This study that you’re citing might document the consolation—or the lack of it—that Ishiguro suggests with his title.  Throughout the novel, the pianist is constantly letting everybody down, because they have such outsized expectations of him on one hand, but he is also just unable to pay the slightest bit of attention to them.  Or, he vacillates between treating them like utter strangers and attending to them very carefully, like a father/brother/husband/friend.

This seems somehow akin to what you’re saying about the ways that readers conjure protagonists in their imaginations by “rehearsing” their experience, inhabiting it as their own.  And there is something so enjoyable about that—it is a kind of consolation— a way of feeling connected to another person that is unavailable to us in real life.  But, at the same time, we always know that the person we’re connected to exists only in fiction.  So the experience of reading provides relief from some kind of existential loneliness, although it is also profoundly solitary.


Consolation: we all need it. Leave it to Ishiguro to let us know through a novel. Essays about neurocognition and reading tend to use that word rehearsal. We rehearse versions of ourselves by reading about others. Maybe we do, but we also console ourselves, don’t we? I’d like to see some research on that.

Before I describe another study, I want to mention that the Brain Connectivity article begins with an epigraph from William Styron: “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” There is consolation in exhaustion. It feels like we’ve accomplished something. The epigraph is telling us that Styron got there before the neuroscientists. It’s a move is common in efforts to discuss literature and neuroscience in the same breath, to show that writers have intuited what neuroscientists are now demonstrating. A common complaint about this is that the intuition of literature is perceived as soft, in need of neuroscience’s firmer evidence to demonstrate its truth. The irony is that the conclusions of the neuroscience are so hypothetical and their claims so speculative.

Case in point: a study that makes a fascinating claim and then draws some dubious conclusions. The study, conducted by John A. Johnson (psychologist), Joseph Carrol (literary critic), Jonathan Gottschall (literary critic), and Daniel Kruger (scholar of Public Health), is entitled “Hierarchy in the Library: Egalitarian Dynamics in Victorian Novels.”

The authors used a survey method. 519 respondents rated character traits of characters from 201 nineteenth-century British novel. In their abstract, they describe their findings in pretty lofty terms:

“As expected, antagonists are motivated almost exclusively by the desire for social dominance, their personality traits correspond to this motive, and they elicit strongly negative emotional responses from readers. Protagonists are oriented to cooperative and affiliative behavior and elicit positive emotional responses from readers. Novels therefore apparently enable readers to participate vicariously in an egalitarian social dynamic like that found in hunter-gatherer societies. We infer that agonistic structure in novels simulates social behaviors that fulfill an adaptive social function and perhaps stimulates impulses toward these behaviors in real life.”

I think there’s something to be learned by thinking about how reading novels may “enable readers to participate vicariously” in social dynamics, but I have no idea why these authors would make a leap to hunterer-gatherer societies and their supposedly egalitarian social lives. This feels like a claim sinking in the quicksand of shaky evidence.

While this research is interesting, I don’t think it’s asking the right questions. On a peculiar but interesting note, the hypothesis partly depends on the famous moralism of nineteenth-century fiction—represented by figures by Margaret Oliphant, whom I mentioned in the introduction. Because these novels tend to moralism, the argument goes, they dramatize the social interactions in question more pointedly than novels whose moral stance is murkier. Of course, plenty of Victorian novels are moralistic, but the idea is too general to base a hypothesis on. Dickens moralizes about the dangers of industrialization and the mistreatment of the working classes; Oliphant moralizes about social and sexual decorum in her novels. You wouldn’t call Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories moralistic. Oscar Wilde had to defend The Picture of Dorian Gray in court because it was widely perceived as advocating a variety of sins.


I couldn’t agree more.  This is a really great illustration of a certain kind of disciplinary disagreement—I don’t think a literary critic would make this easy transition from talking about fictional people to talking about “hunter-gatherer societies.” That seems somehow insulting to literature as well as hunters and gatherers, implying that the only way to make literary interpretation meaningful is to tie it in this very direct way to social relations in the real world. It seems so self-evident that it’s boring to discuss the fact that literature’s relationship to real people is exponentially more complicated than that.  (Now I’m probably betraying my lack of background in empirical things by using the word “exponentially” so cavalierly.)

And it seems like this is what The Unconsoled is all about.  What kinds of consolation and human connection can we expect from fiction, from art?  Similarly, how much can we count on art to mirror our experience, and what can we learn from it about the experience of other people?


9780262019316I think Gabrielle Starr can help answer your questions. In her book Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience, Starr makes a more compelling argument about the power of art to change readers. Starr has collaborated with clinical neuroscientists at NYU, to using fMRI technology to examine what happens to people’s brains when they experience art. Starr is a literary critic–an agile and supple reader–so her involvement in this research has helped it avoid some of the pitfalls of overreaching conclusions and oddly skewed questions. Based on her blend of empirical research and literary analysis, Starr concludes that “the arts mediate our knowledge of the world around us by directing our attention, shaping perceptions, and creating dissonance or harmony where none had been before.” Sounds like Ryder, right? “What aesthetics thus gives us,” she continues, “is a restructuring of value.” We are Ryder!

Ryder’s bewildering quest puts him in the position of constantly revising his sense of what’s important—what he does or should value. This happens mostly in small ways, in response to minutiae. That’s true of reading. People like to say, “That book changed my life.” But most reading changes us in ways too subtle to notice. That may be why it’s so common to find big generalizations about the ways reading helps us “come to know who we are.” Ryder’s sense of who he never stops changing. And that’s true for all of us. In that sense, a book might help us become a slightly revised version of who we were yesterday, but it’s not going to stop us from becoming somebody slightly different tomorrow.


And tomorrow, too: We will still be Ryder.

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