Last night, I started reading Paul Auster's novel Sunset Park. I made it through 100 pages before I fell asleep on the couch -- although this is more a reflection of my own exhaustion than any particular comment on the book. To be honest, I'm not sure what I think of the novel yet; it's too early to tell. I'm not sure what I think of Auster, either. I admire some of his books immoderately (The New York Trilogy, The Invention of Solitude, even The Brooklyn Follies) while finding others (Moon Palace, The Music of Chance) relatively impenetrable.
But here's what I want to tell you, which has more to do with me than it does with Auster. I was struck, from the beginning of Sunset Park, by two elements he wove into the narrative: first, a connection forged between two characters by a common reading of The Great Gatsby, and second, a fascination, bordering on obsession, with the arcana of major league baseball. Both are also elements in The Lost Art of Reading, and while I don't mean to claim a confluence between the books, it's the kind of coincidence that delights me because it suggests a critical mass.
Among the themes of Auster's novel is "tangibility"; as one character suggests, "The world is tangible. … Human beings are tangible. They are endowed with bodies, and because those bodies feel pain and suffer from disease and undergo death, human life has not altered by a single jot since the beginning of mankind." I agree with that, and think it's worth repeating, especially now, when technology encourages us to think we live in a never-ending present, where the rigors of the body can be forgotten beneath the weightlessness of electronic life.
Here, in a nutshell, we have the reading experience, the way we come to books with our own stuff, which we then watch play out in the pages as we find a way to connect. For another reader, Auster's Gatsby riff, or his discussion of Herb Score and Donnie Moore (tragic pitchers both, the first a shooting star whose promising career ended early, after a line drive hit him in the eye; the second a suicide who never got over giving up the momentum-turning home run in the 1986 ALCS) might be flat or insignificant, his notion of tangibility irrelevant. For me, though, these are ideas of consequence, speaking as they do to how I see the world.
Again, talk about empathy -- although this is a slightly different sort of empathy, I'd argue, than that of which Jane Smiley writes, one based on commonality, reassurance even, an empathy not about challenging but sharing a world view. Either way, it requires an openness, a willingness to be connected, to acknowledge and engage with the tangibility of another person's mind.
This is what reading offers; this is why we do it -- to build a frame around the chaos, to help define a point-of-view. We construct a universe, we construct a meaning, we construct a story.