Utne Blogs > Literature

Literary Stockholm Syndrome

by Will Wlizlo


Tags: literary Stockholm syndrome, reading, long books, The Millions, great writing, Will Wlizlo,

bookcover1As a former English major, I’ve slashed my way through tons (literally) of books. The aggregate weight of your literary explorations becomes a sort of status symbol on campus, with extra-shiny merit badges awarded for the really heavy tomes—the Ulysseses and Infinite Jests and David Copperfields and The Count of Monte Cristos. From a semi-serious academic perspective, this logorrheaic one-upmanship makes a sort of professional sense, but that doesn’t explain why thousands of non-scholarly types cart along dense snoozers like War and Peace or Les Misérables or Anna Karenina on their sandy vacations when they could actually be having fun. Mark Oconnell has a theory: Readers have Stockholm syndrome.

bookcover2Oconnell chronicles his conversion from reading thinner, second-tier literature to hulking beasts of literary burden over at The Millions.

At some point towards the end of [The Recognitions, by William Gaddis,] it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario.

bookcover3Are we to pity such bibliophilic prisoners? Not if the twisted devotion helps sail them through literature’s masterpieces. “Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time,” continues Oconnell,

but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room.

Source: The Millions