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In Search of Ourselves in Life and Literature

by Josh Cohen

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 2021
ISBN: 978-0-593-31620-7
Publisher: Pantheon

A British psychoanalyst explores key stages of life through the illuminating stories of several relatable literary characters.

In his absorbing new book, Cohen, a professor of modern literary theory at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a practicing psychoanalyst, believes there’s a good deal of wisdom to be gleaned about our personal circumstances by reading fiction. He sets out to explore novels that are applicable to various life stages: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age and death. In each chapter, the author examines at least three significant novels, discussing relevant themes and narratives alongside his actual therapeutic cases, and occasionally reflecting on his own personal experiences. Cohen offers up a rich selection, combining several classic examples such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Mrs. Dalloway with lesser-known titles such as William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows or Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man as well as more recent works such as Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. Cohen’s analysis is uniformly insightful and well complemented by his case studies, but some readers may balk that his selections, with a few exceptions, represent primarily White American or British authors, their stories confined almost exclusively to a straight cultural perspective. A broader inclusion of racial and ethnic fictional examples would have enhanced this exercise, but Cohen still provides a compelling case for how and why reading fiction can enlighten our human experiences. “In fiction as in the consulting room,” he writes, “different life stories abound with mutual echoes and resonances, bringing out not only what our lives have in common, but what sets them apart. And this is where fiction and psychotherapy come into their own. We may recognize aspects of ourselves in a fictional character or psychotherapeutic case study; but we will also be struck by the singularity of each of them, their tenacious attachment to being themselves and no one else.”

An engrossing consideration of how reading fiction can lay a pathway for emotional and intellectual enrichment.