1. Why Read?
Someone coming out of a bookshop once told us that he only bought books that he thought he could derive some practical benefit from.
Self-improvement is a powerful motivator, and books are generally seen as useful tools when it comes to getting ahead professionally or making a better impression socially. I dare anyone to deny that they’ve ever looked at a bookshelf and thought that the assembled collection somehow reflected their accumulated intellect: we take pride in our books, and so we should, if we’ve actually read them. After all, it’s rare to finish a book and not have gleaned some insight into how the world works, how things fluctuate around us as we move through life.
But neither do books confine themselves to our understanding of reality. Often we want books to do the opposite, to move away from rationality and the strictures of our circumstances. Emma Bovary, the doomed heroine of Flaubert’s first published novel, is the ultimate fictional embodiment of the escapist attitude as we understand it today; the idea that something better exists in the realm of literature and the imagination. Emma’s problem was that she couldn’t draw the line between fantasy and reality; her obsession with romantic literature reflected an aspiration to inhabit a world of excitement and adventure beyond the monotony of mid-nineteenth century rural France. In other words, living vicariously through the protagonists of Scott’s novels wasn’t enough – Madame Bovary wanted to take things a step further, and in doing so she became a romantic martyr of sorts, hopelessly unable to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality.
How does Emma’s predicament inform our views of reading today? We think there are Emma Bovarys everywhere, some more obvious than others. In fact, we think there’s an element of Emma Bovary in us all, only checked every once in a while by the Monsieur Homais we harbour simultaneously. Whilst Emma was the ultimate fantasist, Homais personified the ambitious pragmatist, ruthlessly determined to climb the social/professional ladder by any means available to him. Do these characters still represent opposite ends of the reading spectrum? We see no reason why not, but Flaubert would have hoped that we would manage to flesh out the area in-between.