Sunday, July 14, 2013

Reading From the Heart

Reading from the Heart: women, literature, and the search for True Love / Suzanne Juhasz
New York: Penguin, c1994.
292 p.

I've owned this book for ages; my husband picked it up for me in some garage sale long ago, knowing I'd like it. Despite taking years to finally pick it up off my shelf, I enjoyed it once I began reading!

It's the story of the author's engagement with fiction as a child and throughout her life, about how reading shaped her and helped to form an identity. She comes at the topic from her perspective as an academic, with much of her focus formed upon developmental psychology, the school of object-relations, and feminist psychology. Her premise is that early mother-child attachment forms the way in which we later read to make connections, to understand the self, to feel a sense of recognition. She says in the opening pages "True love is at heart a story of mother love" (p13)

And yet it seems that reading can also be a form of resistance to a smothering mother love of reality -- Juhasz also states early on that as a child, she felt that her mother expected her to perform and achieve, to grasp what the mother had not been able to. Thus,
Even if I could find my secret self, she could never come out. Except when I was reading. The reading girl is not out producing something, being successful. Reading was the opposite of the life my mother told me to lead. Reading was not for an audience; it was for me. It differed from my performances in the world, because when I was reading, no one could tell what was happening to me. Consequently, reading met both halves of my need: to find out who I might be; to come into existence. 
While I'm not sure I entirely agree with this concept, I did find the book fascinating. Juhasz reveals her own early reading habits and her abiding love of books, and while doing so, delves deeply into some much loved novels of my own. I was familiar with the majority of the titles she uses as examples, and it was fabulous to see a deeper study of the themes and characters from her 'search for mother love' perspective.

The first section, Becoming a Romance Reader, focuses on Pride & Prejudice and Elswyth Thane's Tryst, both of which I've read and enjoyed. But Juhasz has some insights I'd never considered about both titles.

Part two deals with Wuthering Heights, part three with Jane Eyre. I dislike the first and love the second; in which I am not in agreement with her judgement of either! But still a wonderful inquiry into both books.

Part Four is entitled The Magic Circle: Fictions of the Good Mother, covering Little Women and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day. I'd never heard of the second one, nor the next two books in the following section dealing with lebsian romance. She discusses Isabel Miller's Patience and Sarah and Valerie Taylor's Prism, both books that drew a strong note of recognition from Juhasz as she moved into her own lesbian identity in midlife.

She also includes an appendix of about 20 pages that is a scholarly inquiry into the psychoanalytical theories that shaped the premise of this book. If you have any interest at all in the concatenation of psychology and literature, this will be useful and intriguing.

Throughout the book there are many references to other books, that much loved trail of reading that books of this sort often highlight. I really enjoyed the analysis of the titles that I had read myself, comparing her thoughts to the impressions I had of those titles. The thrill of recognition, as she often calls the experience of reading a book that you really get, is something I've experienced myself. But for me, that's not the only thrill in reading. I also enjoy the thrill of complete dislocation, of not quite understanding what is going on, of finding the actions of the characters foreign to my experience, and sometimes reprehensible. I don't believe that I read solely to find recognition or acknowledgement of my essential Self. However, those books that strike a chord, that easily become beloved, seem to have an element of this kind of identification at play.

Reading is a complicated process, and this just provides another facet to consider. It's well worth the read, interesting and not overly academic, even while precise enough to learn new things from. Here's something that Juhasz shares in her introduction, the concept of her book explained.  Whether you agree and would like to learn a little more, or disagree, and would like to argue the point, this book provides lots to wrestle with.

My description of reading indicates that to find the secret self -- the true self -- a person cannot go it alone. Someone from the outside has to be there, to notice, to say, "Oh, it's you!" -- for the self to know she is there. And, in a complementary manner, she needs to recognize the presence of another, to know that there is a world in which to exist. Recognition bolstered by love. All else in the way of development follows. A book is not a living person, true; but a relationship is created in the interaction between the reading mind and the words that are read. When there is no active nurture in the child's life, reading may well approximate that process to provide an environment for coming alive that is at once safe and challenging, supportive and guiding. Something to curl up into; something to push against....
To a certain extent. But for all the ways in which the book is like another person, there are many ways in which it is not. No flesh; no blood. You are alone when you read, despite the feeling that you are not. You are not actually engaged with the outside world. That is both the beauty of  the experience and its frustration, because reading enhances the loneliness as much as it reduces it. After all, engaged, stimulated, active as you may be, all of this exertion is taking place inside one person, on solitary mind.
This may well be why reading is addictive. No one book ever gets the reader all the way there. She must find another, and another, to repeat the wonderful process that is finally but a taste, or a template, of the real thing: love and recognition with a person, a mother or someone who can love as a mother should.


  1. This does sound like a book I'd also enjoy for several reasons. Reading about reading enhances my time with books. Your review is thoughtful and well written--thanks!

    1. Thanks Suko -- I agree that reading about reading seems to add some resonance to the activity that I spend most of my time doing! I do have a fondness for books that explain a readerly focus, from a personal standpoint, and when they include some literary criticism and lead to new titles, that is just extra goodness :)

  2. Elswyth Thane is one of my favorite authors so I am curious about this book. Thanks for mentioning it.

    1. I really enjoyed the way she shared her reading insights in this book, even though she didn't think that much of Tryst (I personally loved it!)

  3. This is not a book that I would normally pick up. I love living in the world of fiction but every once in a while I will venture out and try something new. I may just have to pick this book up.


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