On Reader’s Transference: A Confession

During the last presidential election, a friend vented to me about her feeling that her mother was too impressionable. “It’s like she just always agrees with the last person she talked to.” I’ve known people like that, too, and her phrasing seemed perfect to me. I’ve thought of it often over the last several years.

Lately, I’ve been realizing that I do this–or a version of it–with books. My inner monologue and emotions move into alignment with some aspect of the last book I read, often (usually?) without my noticing. In the reading community, we tend to take as a given Edmund Wilson’s idea that “no two people read the same book,” that we interpret books through the lens of our personal experiences, and I know that’s at work with me. What I’m discovering, though, is that I walk around in the world experiencing life through the lens of my reading, too. It’s the reader’s version of Freudian transference, and man, can it make life weird.

I’ve probably been doing this for as long as I’ve been a reader, but I just recently started to put the pieces together. A few weeks ago, I was reading a friend’s (currently unpublished) travel memoir, in which she notes that the reason she set off to see the world was, “I felt big, but my life felt small.” That cut straight to an insecurity I think most–if not all–of us know well, and in the time it took to read one sentence, I went from “You know, my life is pretty great,” to “But is it enough?” I eventually landed on “yes,” but not before I spent 24 hours trying to figure out where the funk I was in had come from.

Insight. Sometimes I’m slow at it.

Of course, now that I’ve identified my tendency to commit literary transference, I see examples of it constantly. (Next up on Psychoanalysis with Rebecca: When All You Have is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail.) A novel about infidelity leaves me casting suspicious glances at my husband. A memoir has me feeling like my family’s dysfunctions (what? we all have them) are irreparable. Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris make me hyperconscious of my quirks and tempted to play them up. An analysis of habits convinces me that if I pay enough attention, I can conquer the world. (So, this isn’t always a bad thing.)

I’m a little embarrassed that it took me so long to see this about myself, and at first, I was a little embarrassed to realize that it’s even A Thing I Do. I pride myself on not being a gullible reader, but I think it’s time to admit that I am a suggestible one, emotionally if not intellectually. So now I need to know: is this something other readers experience, too–a product of being changed by what we read–or is it just me?


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