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Father Did Know Best: Great Literature Humanizes Us

This article is more than 6 years old.

My father’s ashes have lain for over a quarter century in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. And while I occasionally visit his grave, it's not often I feel the need to converse.

But early one morning last week, as I jogged along in the dark, and digested the new research by Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd published in the journal Science demonstrating how reading literature heightens empathy and emotional intelligence, I fantasized about waking him up. I wanted to tell him that two researchers had just validated his whole life, and confirmed its essential claim: great literature humanizes us.

He believed that reading books had saved him, and he wanted to write partly to add his voice to their humanizing chorus.

My father, the writer Bernard Malamud, was born just about a century ago in April 1914. His parents were poor immigrants, and his mother developed schizophrenia when he was a boy. She was locked up in an asylum in Brooklyn, and died or committed suicide just as he turned 15. Not long after, he began to tell his friends that he would become a great writer. (When, decades later, I spoke with some of them, they told me of the claim, and how laughable they found it.)

But he had some talent, and enough self-discipline to endure an impoverished 20 year apprenticeship; and, perhaps most significantly, he had had the good fortune as a child to attend nurturing public schools in Brooklyn where his teachers had taken an interest in him, and had introduced him to books. He told me many times how it was through reading literature that he had learned there was a larger life possible — something beyond the poverty and misery within his family. He believed that reading books had saved him, and he wanted to write partly to add his voice to their humanizing chorus.

In his novel “The Assistant,” he made his case vividly. Frank Alpine, a loser and petty crook, is falling in love with the daughter of the grocer he assists (and has earlier robbed). He wants Helen to love him back. Helen loves books. Frank starts hanging out in the library so he can be near her. And, driven by his desire for her, he begins to read. Though the path is far from smooth, this experience begins to transform him.

The author's father, Bernard Malamud.
The author's father, Bernard Malamud.

[Helen] wanted Frank to like novels, to enjoy in them what she did. She checked out “Madame Bovary,” “Anna Karenina” and “Crime and Punishment,” all by writers he had barely heard of, but they were very satisfying books, she said. He noticed she handled each yellow-paged volume as though she were holding in her respectful hands the works of God Almighty. As if – according to her – you could read in them everything you couldn’t afford not to know – the Truth about Life. Frank carried the three books up to his room, and huddled in a blanket to escape the cold that seeped in through the loose window frames, had rough going. The stories were hard to get into because the people and places were strange to him, their crazy names difficult to hold in his mind and some of the sentences were so godawful complicated he forgot the beginning before he got to the end. The opening pages irritated him as he pushed through forests of odd facts and actions. Though he stared for hours at the words, starting one book, then another, then the third – in the end, in exasperation, he flung them aside.

But because Helen had read and respected these books, it shamed him that he hadn’t, so he picked one up from the floor and went back to it. As he dragged himself through the first chapters, gradually the reading became easier and he got interested in the people – their lives in one way or another wounded – some to death. Frank read, at the start, in snatches, then in bursts of strange hunger, and before too long he had managed to finish the books. (p.106)

As he aged, my father liked to repeat a rueful riddle of Ashley Montagu’s: What is the missing link between chimpanzee and human? The answer: Man. He felt that people only became fully human if they transcended their narrow existence through their empathy for others. He felt that books were precious, and believed that literature could lead us toward that place of greater humanity. Seems he might have been onto something.


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This program aired on October 15, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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