Recognizing Ourselves in Literature

Readers can love a novel or short story for many reasons -- including expert prose, a compelling plot, and well-drawn characters. There's also the appeal of what might be called the "recognition apparition."

By that I mean seeing a fictional character or situation and being viscerally reminded of a real someone or something in our own lives.

My most recent experience with this phenomenon occurred as I've been reading House of Sand and Fog this week. At the start of Andre Dubus III's gripping novel, Colonel Behrani is working a menial job in the U.S. To maintain appearances, this proud ex-military man from Iran leaves his California home in dressy clothes before changing into casual garb for a day of picking up highway litter. Then he changes back to the dressy clothes before going home.

That scenario brought back memories of an African-American woman I worked with at a lighting-fixture factory who would arrive and leave in the kind of "Sunday best" outfit one sees in church. I was at that grungy factory for a summer job between college terms, and didn't care what I wore. But this dignified woman had been stuck there for years, and even my immature younger self understood how important it was for her to have the world outside the factory think she had a better job than she did.

Last fall, I read Tracy Chevalier's absorbing historical novel Remarkable Creatures -- which stars a young fossil hunter in 19th-century England and her middle-aged, "higher class" friend. Though the characters' wide age gap might make their camaraderie seem unrealistic in the eyes of some readers, the friendship was believable to me. I've had three much older close friends (one unfortunately now deceased), and know firsthand that age is irrelevant when people are on the same wavelength.

Then there's Shadows on the Rock, which stars widowed father Euclide and his daughter Cecile. Willa Cather's gem of a novel is set in 17th-century Quebec City, but I still strongly identified with Euclide because I've been the single father of a daughter.

When I was a kid myself, I was timid and skinny. So, while reading Alexandre Dumas' Georges as an adult, I related to the timid and skinny young Georges in the novel's early pages. (He became much more courageous and adventurous than me after Dumas had him grow up!) Georges was a 19th-century person of color, and I'm a 21st-century white person, but I still felt a connection.

By the way, as I noted in this HuffPost slideshow last year, the stellar Georges was the only novel by the partly black Dumas that dealt prominently with race.

Richard Matheson's Hunted Past Reason is a novel reminiscent of Richard Connell's heart-stopping short story "The Most Dangerous Game." I've never been in a situation as terrifying as Bob the writer faces in Matheson's book, but I could understand from personal experience Bob's discomfort with wilderness stuff like serious hiking and camping!

Isaac Bashevis Singer's "The Little Shoemakers," a short story much different than Connell's, is a tale that mostly takes place in pre-World War II Poland. But many present-day readers can recognize things in this marvelous tale. As in House of Sand and Fog, "The Little Shoemakers" features the immigration element that's in many of our ancestral histories. And the way Abba the shoemaker's children gravitate to white-collar pursuits reminded me of the different path I took than my working-class father, who was a TV/radio repairman.

A book's milieu or time period can be much different than that of the reader's. But experiences and emotions are often universal, and this is one wonderful thing about reading great novels and short stories. They're about fictional people, but, in a way, they're about ourselves.

Which characters and situations in literature remind you of yourself, people you've known, and things that have happened in your life?


Dave Astor has written a new book titled Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press).

The part-humorous memoir is about Dave's 25 years at Editor & Publisher magazine covering, interviewing, and meeting notables such as Arianna Huffington, Heloise, Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart, Paul Krugman, Ann Landers, and Abigail Van Buren ("Dear Abby"); and notable cartoonists such as Gary Larson ("The Far Side"), Lynn Johnston ("For Better or For Worse"), Mort Walker ("Beetle Bailey"), Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"), Stan Lee ("Spider-Man"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury"), Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County"), Scott Adams ("Dilbert"), Jim Davis ("Garfield"), Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates"/"Steve Canyon"), and Herblock. The book also chronicles changes in the media, discusses personal stuff, and more.

Comic (and Column) Confessional will soon be available for online purchase. If you'd like information about ordering a signed copy, contact Dave at