The Harvard critic recalls feeling genuinely anxious about how things would turn out for the hero of “The Magic Mountain.”
Question: What books havernyou enjoyed reading recently?rnrn
Louis Menand: Yeah,rn I read a book actually, this wasrnkind of for business, but I really thought was great. It’srn called "Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?" andrnit’s by a professor at Stanford called Blakey Vermeule, and it’s an rnexample ofrnwhat we were talking about earlier, which is trying to apply some of therndiscoveries of experimental psychology and cognitive science to novels, rnandrnparticularly ask the question why is it that people care very much aboutrn whatrnhappens to a fictional character, given that not only have we never met rnthisrnperson, but the person doesn’t exist. rnBut we actually, we see a movie or read a novel, and the bad guy rngetsrnaway with it, we’re pretty upset. rnWhy would we, why would we care? rnSo she has an explanation from evolutionary psychology, but she rnhas somernother insights as well into what it means to read or what it means to rnidentifyrnwith characters that have to do with the way we relate to other people.rnrn
And even though I felt the cognitive science part rnof it Irncould take or leave, I thought that her manner of reading novels was rngreat,rnit’s a wonderful book, and she just has a great voice as a critic and I rnfelt Irnwould follow her wherever she went.rnrn
Question: Have you everrnfound yourself caring deeply about a fictional character?rnrn
Louis Menand: Sure,rn of course, yeah, mostrnof them. Hans Castorp probably,rnhero of "The Magic Mountain," when I was a kid I read that, I mean, not arn kid,rnprobably about 20, and I remember being, like, deeply invested in thatrncharacter. I don’t even know whyrnanymore, but I remember feeling it really mattered to me how things camern outrnfor him.rnrn
Yeah, no, that’s part of why, I suppose, I suppose rneverybodyrndoes get attached to characters whether in movies or in stories, but I rnthinkrnthat’s part of the reason you get involved with literature is because rnthere’srnsomebody that grabs you about it and then you want to figure out why. That’s part of what the job is, really,rnis to figure out what is it about this story or this character or this rnoutcomernor this style or this voice that gets to you. What’srn getting to you? rnWhat does it mean? Andrnthat’s really an interesting problem to try to figure out. rn So that’s what this book was taking arnstab at doing and I just thought it was a pretty original and fresh and rnfunrntake on the subject.