In support of Sarah Werner’s thoughtful comment on my previous post, I’d like to cite this wonderful passage from Edward Mendelson’s book The Things That Matter:
Anyone, I think, who reads a novel for pleasure or instruction takes an interest both in the closed fictional world of that novel and in the ways the book provides models of examples of the kinds of life that a reader might or might not choose to live. Most novels of the past two centuries that are still worth reading were written to respond to both of those interests. They were not written to be read objectively or dispassionately, as if by some nonhuman intelligence, and they can be understood most fully if they are interpreted and understood from a personal point of view, not only from historical, thematic, or analytical perspectives. A reader who identifies with the characters in a novel is not reacting in a naïve way that ought to be outgrown or transcended, but is performing one of the central acts of literary understanding.
Can “identifying” with characters, or reading in order to learn more about yourself, be done badly? Of course. But that would be a poor reason for repudiating such reading altogether. Academic criticism can be done badly too. Or so I hear.