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A Critique of “Why Books are Living Things” by D. Wallace Peach

(About a 7 minute read)

Sometime around the age of 16, my heart suddenly bloomed — riotously bloomed — for a much older woman than me.  Although older, she was stunningly gorgeous and just as creatively free spirited as she was gorgeous.  I had never met anyone like her before.

She was so much more fascinating than the girls in my high school.  The one thing  I thought I valued most in people — very much including girls — was intelligence, and I thought the older woman possessed gobs more intelligence than the girls I knew.  “Why can’t more girls be like her”, I would think.  Poor girls!

Yet, I didn’t fully know myself in high school.  It wasn’t precisely intelligence I valued.  It was intelligent creativity, with the emphasis on the latter.  I wasn’t much of a fan of being dumb in creative ways, but I was a huge fan of being intelligent in creative ways, the more creative, the better.  The older woman was so creative, intelligently creative, that she was a genuine free spirit.

Another thing I didn’t know about myself at the time was that I was afflicted with adolescent depression.  As a consequence, my emotional range most days was pretty much restricted to boredom, loneliness, anger, and horniness.  But she added hope to that mix.

I began to hope that, even though she herself might not be for me, there might be someone out there like her who was for me.   Quite a positive hope.

In fact, the only great negative thing to me about the much older women was the fact she wasn’t real.  She was the character Star in Robert A. Heinlein’s novel, Glory Road.    Empress of the Twenty Universes.  Mother of dozens of children (via egg donation).  Recipient of special medical treatments for longevity.   Intelligent.  Creative.  Free spirited.

And fictional.

I was reminded of Star early this morning when I came across a blog post by the author, D. Wallace Peach, on Why Books are Living Things.  It’s a short, thought-provoking read in which Peach essentially makes three points, and it was her third point that inspired me to think of Star.

If I understand her, Peach argues that we can “enter into relationship” with the stories we encounter in some very significant ways:

Books and the people who inhabit them can open eyes, stir the heart, elicit a deep sense of longing or grief, outrage or fear. I’ve fallen madly in love with protagonists, profoundly altered the path of my life, made new choices, expanded my understanding of the world, all through my relationships with books.

Thus, for Peach, stories are fully capable of influencing our lives in the same ways as people — real, living people — can influence our lives.  Fully capable.

To get a more concrete idea of what Peach might be talking about, I searched my experiences until I remembered Star.   I had “entered into relationship” with Star in more ways than merely desiring her.  She set a standard for me for what I wanted in a woman, and that ideal lasted for a few years — until I met at university a woman who dwarfed even her.  The point is, though: Star was in some ways just as much of an influence on me as could be a real person.

Peach’s second point is more novel to me than her third.  She argues that relationships have a kind of reality to them that I never before thought they might possess:

While studying for a degree in a pastoral counselor, I took this great class called “The Spirituality of Relationship.” In essence, it described a relationship as a new entity, a created presence with a life of its own that requires nurturing and an investment of time to thrive.

As an instance of a relationship with “a life of its own”, Peach gives the example of children in a divorce.  The children, if they have a happy relationship with both parents after the divorce, do not grieve the loss of their parents, but might still grieve the loss of their parent’s relationship to each other.

A fair point, I think, but one that seems to conflict with my own view of non-causal relationships as wholly concepts in our mind.  Because Peach’s idea is novel to me, it might take awhile for me to give it a decent and honorable hearing, so to speak.  Something I’m not satisfied I’ve done yet.  Hence, I won’t comment on it further here.

Peach’s first point is far more familiar to me.  Like many people, I am consciously aware of the fact that humans are story-telling animals, and so is Peach.  (It even seems to me that we instinctively tell stories.  That is, that story-telling is an inherent human trait, a manifestation of our DNA.  Why else has every people on earth, past or present, told stories?)  She makes some excellent points about stories:  That they can be filters or lens through which we view our world; that they can guide our decisions; and that they can create a sense of meaning for us.

She goes on, however, to make some claims I’m uncomfortable with, being the fool I am (for further in-depth, detailed information on what a fool I am, see either one of my two ex-wives).  For instance, she seems to suggest that we are primarily — or to some large extent — the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. I’m not entirely sure that’s precisely what she meant, but if it is then I have an issue or two with it.

I think most of us would like to believe we are the stories we tell about ourselves, at least the good ones, but that we are not.  Not in any profound way.

Now, I do recognize that our stories comprise a large and significant part of our self-image. And that our self-image is something we often take action (or, sometimes refuse to take action) in light of.  I might tell myself stories of when I acted compassionately, in consequence of which, I might now and then act more compassionately than I actually feel towards someone simply to avoid contradicting my stories, or at least the self-image that my stories have done so much to create.   All of that, I don’t dispute.

I would, however, offer to arm wrestle Peach over the issue of just how important self-image (and by implication, stories) is in comparison to the whole of our selves.  Arm wrestle her, of course, because she’d probably win any purely intellectual dispute, but I am a fierce arm-wrestler (I know how to tickle my way to victory).  It just seems to me that self-image is commonly over-blown as a vital component of our individual natures.  It’s like the boss who gets all the credit and attention while the employees do all the work.  I have yet to write a post wholly devoted to what I think of as the self, but I have written some posts that bring up quite a bit of what I mean.  One of those can be found here for anyone interested.

Overall, I find myself much more in agreement with Peach, than in disagreement, which saddens me, given how fond I am of arm wrestling.  Her short but entirely thought-provoking post can be found here.  Now seems a good time to turn the discussion over to you.  What do you think of her views?  Is she onto something?  Your opinions, thoughts, feelings, and challenges to arm wrestling are more than welcome!

14 thoughts on “A Critique of “Why Books are Living Things” by D. Wallace Peach”

  1. I totally love it that you took my post and critiqued it. No one’s done that before and I’m honored. Ah, point one! I’ll get anecdotal here. I have an inner narrative that guides my choices – that I’m a writer, an introvert, and a lazy person. People who know me think I’m outgoing and driven. Who is right? Which story is me? Mine or the one told by those who know me? Are both “true” depending on perspective? I love writing books and others assume I’m successful… but am I? Or is it a story that becomes “true” because others believe it? Do I have to believe it?

    I could wake up tomorrow morning and decide I’m not going to write another book. Overnight, I can change who I am. I can I start painting, become an avid volunteer, be someone who wears stylish clothes instead of sweat pants. The “story” of me is transformed overnight, and those who meet me tomorrow will know a different me than the one that people knew yesterday. I think we make choices according to our narrative every day and we can change that narrative. People who quit their jobs to pursue their dreams, who leave a bad marriage and travel the world, who get sober, or adopt children, to me, are writing new stories for themselves and their lives. 🙂

    So, that’s where I was going with point one. I am a figment of my imagination, a figment of yours and they may not be the same at all. Thanks again for the critique, Paul. This was fun. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for such a wonderful, well-articulated, and thought-provoking clarification of your ideas, and implicit critique of my critique, Wallace!

      First off, I’d like to say that I am grateful to you for your original post. Although I disagreed with some of it, I thought it was wise and insightful, and worth critiquing (it is no fun to critique some dull, insubstantial writing).

      Second, you and I are still in disagreement over your first point. But not so much over the specific points you made. Rather over their implications. Yet, I won’t get into it here much more than that. I plan, however, to write another post on this subject — one that I hope will do justice to both our positions. In short, you’ve once again inspired me!

      By the way, exactly how much are you charging me for your muse-work?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I could talk about this stuff free of charge non-stop for years, Paul. Ha ha. You should see the smile on my face. Thanks for the fun and interesting conversation, and I look forward to your next thoughts 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul, interesting posts from both yourself and DWP. I think, due to how the brain stores and processes information, all narratives are versions of ourselves. The brain is not capable of processing something it does not know. If we create fantasy, that fantasy is only a version of information our brain has experienced and a result of our upbringing and value and belief systems. We are all figments of our own imagination 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Brilliant, Davy! I couldn’t agree with you more! There is always a sense in which our narratives are ever versions of ourselves. I’m thinking the only possible exception could be if we stole the narrative from someone else, perhaps without fully understanding it. I love your insight here! Honestly love it!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. So am I, K.L., so am I! It has so quickly gotten deeper than I suspected it would. Wallace’s ideas are brilliant in the sense of being fruitful. What are some of the implications that you see?


  3. This reminds me a bit of Hume’s bundle theory of knowing, what we usually think of as, physical objects. If I understand it correctly, he believed that what we call a chair, for instance, is merely a conglomeration of our sensations of firm, red, supportive, etc. And we never sense or know a chair at all. In the same way, Ms. Peach’s idea of self of being a collection of narratives is like a thought, or perhaps, a memory bundle. An internal sense group. That’s not so new, I suppose, but to relate it to our reading of books, and especially to fantasy and the imaginings of others, and how those internal sensings contribute to our ‘self collection’ is really intriguing.
    I see the point of contention above to hinge on whether the impetus – I will now be sober – for instance, actually creates a sober person, or whether it is the action in response to it that creates them, or IS them. I completely agree our inner narrative acts as a great impetus. But if we only think and create inner narratives, are we anything at all? I think there must be some level of action and perhaps some level of sharing it with other observers. She did touch on the concept of interaction and how our own narratives are affected by the narratives others share about us – which I could think on for days…perhaps years. I have a short-story writing workshop coming up at Norwescon. Perhaps I’ll be inspired on this type of topic. I’ll let you know if anything comes of it. Thanks all for a good workout of the brain!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for such stimulating thoughts, Sheri!

      It’s fascinating how you bring Hume into this. If I recall, Hume applied his bundle theory of knowledge not just to chairs, but to the self. As a result, he denied that the self exists as an object. That is, as anything continuous and permanent. I’m unsure, however, whether my elaboration on human’s bundle theory is of much use to us here. I was mainly fascinated with it.

      I’m pleased to say that I believe you, Wallace, and I are all in agreement that our inner narratives influence actions — or even more broadly, our behavior. I think it’s a challenge, however, to figure out just how important our narratives are as a part of ourselves? Or as you put it, I think, “What does the narrative, ‘I will now be sober’, have to do with the self? Does it create it? Does it create the action that creates it? Or is it the self?” Very good questions, I’d say. An answer to them would seem to me to depend on how we define what the self is. So, I’d like to ask, how do you defined what the self is?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh wow, that’s a good question indeed. I must admit I’ve quit defining such things for many years now. I spent so many years before those trying to define everything down to the most minute detail, and it made me tired, depressed and cynical. I turned to living instead of defining my moments. So as such, I guess if I had to go back to define my current sense of what self is, I’d be inclined to say it’s a set of actions connected to a given person that they themselves may enact, remember and reflect upon to generate further actions. I think this falls under your Late Night Thoughts, and I’ll have to review it to see if I still think it works tomorrow. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think you’re probably right that defining these things isn’t always the best thing to do for the sake of staying sane. I’ve been thinking of writing a post on the nature of the self, though. Not because I’ve got a firm opinion of what it is, but because I’ve got a lot of questions about what it is.


      3. Yes, a post on what the self is will be a great topic to explore. I didn’t mean to say we shouldn’t reflect and question. I wouldn’t be reading and responding if I disagreed with that. It’s just a good reminder to my ‘self’ that applying and living concepts that are contemplated is important to learning more deeply and growing in a discernable way.
        After reviewing my ‘definition’ I think I’ll stand by it for now. It will be interesting to see what comes up in response to your post on this topic when you get to it. Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

      4. “It’s just a good reminder to my ‘self’ that applying and living concepts that are contemplated is important to learning more deeply and growing in a discernable way.” That’s a really good insight, I think. Thanks for that!


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