Columns > Published on June 11th, 2024

Should a Book Be a Mirror Or a Door?

“A book is not supposed to be a mirror. It's supposed to be a door.” — Fran Lebowitz

I’ll be honest: I’ve never been a fan of aphorisms. They can get a bit pretentious and many sacrifice nuance for the sake of impact.

And yet there’s something so compelling about Fran Lebowitz’ two-part theorem (from her Netflix show Pretend It’s a City) on what books are “supposed” to be — leading us to question the intersection of literature, representation, and empathy.

Books as mirrors

As a white woman, I see myself reflected in a lot of literature on the market — if not most. I can pick up a random book in a shop with a decent chance of finding someone like me or with similar experiences within its pages, described with both care and depth.

Lebowitz’s rejection of books as mirrors urges us to ask whether this type of recognition is a necessary condition for excellent creative writing. The answer, to me, is not as straightforward as I once thought it was.

There’s a part of me that immediately agrees: I don’t need to directly identify with a character to be able to sympathize with them or enjoy the story. If an author is truly skilled at what they’re doing, they’ll create characters that any type of reader will, if not love, then at least recognize as true to life. I can appreciate an unlikeable character when done well, just as I can be frustrated with characters that are a little too similar to me — but above all, they need to be realistic.

Here, some might say that anything realistic is also a type of reflection. And you’d be right: books don’t need to reflect the reader specifically, but in my opinion, they do need to reflect the world in a way that the reader recognizes as authentic. This is no less true for genres like fantasy and sci-fi which, arguably, make it a point to not mirror the real world at all, but which still contain a grain of realism that’s necessary for the story to make sense, and therefore for readers to invest in it.

The trouble is, there’s no objective or universal experience of the world and not every book will ring true to every reader. Furthermore, seeing yourself mirrored in literature is easy to take for granted when it’s commonplace. Sadly, this is an experience and privilege which has been withheld from far too many readers for far too long.

And this is where my (and Lebowitz’s) initial rejection of “mirror” books starts to wobble. Because representation matters; not only do books echo the world we live in, but they’re active agents in shaping it. The stories we tell (and the books we read) can significantly influence what the world is like. And it's difficult to deny the damage that a lack of representation can do, especially to younger audiences who may learn from an early age that they are not part of that story. That’s why so much focus is placed on publishing children’s books with diverse representation.

As anthropologist Clifford Geertz puts it: 

man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun 

“Mirror” books, in this sense, have a huge role to play when it comes to countering and changing social narratives.

Books as doors

Does that mean that you should only read books about characters that look and experience the world the way you do? Of course not. That would be boring — and of course, many of us turn to books when we want to escape our own existence, not to get another dose of it.

So Lebowitz poses doors as an alternative to mirrors: the ability to open a book and step out of yourself and into something new; a door which sheds some light on other ways of being and thinking — an opportunity to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, or imagine the possibilities of another world.

Beyond simply entering a fantasy realm, it’s long been studied how reading can foster empathy and understanding, acting as a kind of door to other people’s experiences of the world. Not only can we learn about history and society in the abstract, but reading brings macro-level issues down to a micro-level which makes them so much more concrete — especially for younger or less experienced readers.

When a character that you have learnt to appreciate and support goes through hard times, you’re bound to share their pain, even if they’re nothing like you at all. When we treat books as doors into worlds other than our own, we often come to understand those worlds better.

But as more and more readers turn to books for escapism or a chance to go beyond their own existence, the analogy of the door risks turning a bit sour. As easy as it is to open a door, you can also just walk back into your own comfortable existence once the last page has been turned. You may visit the pain of others and be lulled into the belief that you’re doing your part, but you may also choose to shut the door on it — falling into the deleterious role of trauma tourist.

As readers, I think we need to reckon with our romanticized ideas about the potential of books as doors. Empathy is vital, but it can only do so much without action. Books, much as we love to believe that they’re the answer to world peace, are merely a starting point. 

Books can be both and then some

In the end, I find myself disagreeing with the dichotomy and finality of Lebowitz’s statement. Books are not supposed to be any one thing. They can be mirrors and they can be doors; they can be novellas or they can be tomes. But isn’t it far more important that books continue to be both and everything in between? That there is variety and an open conversation about the role of literature? That we continue to hold the publishing industry accountable?

We don’t need all books to be mirrors or doors or any other household object. We just need them, as a collective, to tell a multitude of stories that cover all types of experiences and appeal to all kinds of readers.

If I sounded a bit pessimistic about books earlier, let me rephrase: books can be the starting point for something great, so let’s make sure we lay the foundation right.

About the author


Savannah Cordova is a writer from London. Her work has been featured in Slate, Kirkus, BookTrib, DIY MFA, and more. She loves reading and writing short stories, and spends much of her time analyzing literary trends into the ground. You'll often find her with an iced vanilla latte, a book, and a furrow in her brow.

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