Sometimes, we like to read fiction because it makes us feel less alone. A certain passage will stick out to us and we think “whoa, I’m not the only weirdo who thinks like this!” Other times, we read fiction because it allows us to have experiences that we might never have otherwise– what is the likelihood that any one of us will know how it feels to chase a great white whale across the Atlantic or a beautiful lost love beyond the green light at the end of the dock? What is the likelihood that we will ever know how it feels to pursue something with the kind of obsession that literary characters feel? In fact, it’s very likely, because most of us have the opportunity to crack open Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby at our local library.
But a book doesn’t have to fit into the stuffy traditional canon for it to mean something to its readers. In fact, one of my favorite books of all time isn’t even a grown-up book. It’s a children’s story about a girl and her dog.
I read Because of Winn-Dixie when I was about nine, maybe a little younger. I didn’t like what my teachers called “realistic fiction”– at that time my favorite book was Lloyd Alexander’s The Rope Trick, aka pure fantasy. I can’t remember why I picked it up or when, but I remember how it made me feel. This short little book tells the story of a ten-year-old girl named Opal who lives with her single, pastor father in a trailer park in Florida. She’d just moved away from her old town and all her friends, and everyone she meets in this new town seems snobbish, awkward, or downright unfriendly. Then one day she (literally) runs into a giant ugly dog who becomes her new best friend.
It sounds like a pretty standard plot skeleton, and it totally is. But it works because it does something that I don’t think every children’s book does– it teaches empathy. The dog, Winn-Dixie, obviously cares nothing for silly human social standards and barges into everyone’s business with his awkward, big doggy-ness. That way, he introduces Opal to the good sides of her neighbors and peers. He reveals why I love about this book; every single character is flawed, fumbling, and yet essentially good. The guitar player who did some time, the sweet old lady who’s also an ex-alchoholic, the obnoxious boys who are secretly bored and lonely, or Opal’s mother–a dynamic, talented woman whose destructive habits led her to abandon her daughter and husband…Opal learns the complexities of them all. She forgives their faults as well as her own. And the book deals with all of these painful topics (alcoholism, heartbreak, fear, loneliness) with just enough sensitivity and subtlety for a nine-year-old reader to understand.
There’s one scene in particular, when Opal and her father finally have a heart-to-heart about her mother. When I read that story, I was (and still am) fortunate enough to have a wonderful, present mother. There was no way I could relate to Opal’s situation. And yet, something cracked in my chest and I felt this incredible sadness, which paved the way for the incredible joy of Opal’s reconnection to her father.
After reading this book, I truly feel that I became a far more compassionate person. I still have a long way to go towards not judging others or making snide comments about their flaws (let alone going easier on myself), but I do think that this book ushered me along the empathetic path. It would be a long time before a book would elicit that response from me again.
When it did, it came from an even more unexpected source. I had dreaded reading The Catcher in the Rye for a long time before my lit class had finally gotten around to it, and I was all ready to point out every annoying, melodramatic piece in the annoying, melodramatic puzzle of this book. No– puzzle sounds too literary. Surely this book was no puzzle.
As soon as I started reading, I realized my misconception. Holden, the protagonist, is melodramatic and annoying– the book is not. For those who weren’t forced to read it– the story mostly takes place during a few days that young Holden Caulfield, a juvenile delinquent from a wealthy family, spends in New York City after getting kicked out of his latest boarding school. Most of the narration follows his angsty musings, worries, and fears. Soon it becomes clear that Holden has something of an existential crisis going on.
As I followed the events of the story, I kept thinking, “I know you.” I know Holden Caulfield. I’ve met him, in school and at the mall and… though I hesitate to identify with this kind of character, in myself. And I realized why this book is still taught to high schoolers so many years after J.D. Salinger put pen to paper, or busted out his typewriter, or however it was that he wrote. The Catcher in the Rye could be construed in a few different ways– it’s a story about growing up, it’s a story about learning to cope with grief, it’s a story about society and deviance, it’s a story about gender roles, it’s a story about loneliness. I think all of those interpretations are absolutely right. But the way I look at it reminds me a little bit of that cute story I read as a nine-year-old girl.
I think that at its core, The Catcher in the Rye is about learning to live in a world that disappoints you. Holden has to realize by the end of the book that life’s tragedies, big and small, are inevitable. He learns that he can’t be the “catcher in the rye” and rescue all the innocent children from those tragedies. Life will bruise them one day. I think Because of Winn-Dixie says something similar– that every single person is complex and flawed and will cause harm to others and to themselves– but it tacks on an addendum to that message. Yes, everyone is flawed, but everyone also has an incredible store of goodness and grace inside of them waiting to be tapped. And all you have to do to encourage that grace to flourish is to show some compassion.
Conclusion: Literature (scratch that– books!) teach us empathy. “Um, duh,” you’re probably thinking, but let me tell you it’s a different bear to say “Reading teaches us empathy” than it is to experience it on a personal level. And this is why it’s so important that we keep reading alive in the modern world– so that we might show a little more grace to one another.
(With that said, check out Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.)