The Books Briefing: The Act of Writing Is an Oscar-Worthy Performance

Empathy on the stage and page: Your weekly guide to the best in books

“You never really understand a person … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” Atticus Finch famously tells his daughter Scout in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. When actors take a practical approach to this empathetic challenge, their interpretations can yield new insights into a classic character—as the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and the actor Ed Harris found when translating Atticus himself to a Broadway play.

The act of assuming a new perspective or embodying a different role isn’t limited to the theater or screen. Novels by Zadie Smith and Roxane Gay illustrate the many different identities people perform in different contexts, while the science writer Jennifer Ouellette describes how one’s own sense of self can be reinforced by external props such as clothes and keychains. And for the authors Molly Antopol and Cutter Wood, writing itself is a kind of performance—the imaginative and compassionate feat of fully inhabiting the character on the page.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

For Molly Antopol, writing can feel like method acting
“I feel like I’m able to access much deeper truths about my own life by exploring what I know from different angles, through the lens of character. Writing across boundaries—of gender, of generation, of country—helps me locate what I don’t know in what I know, and try to bring it out onto the page.”

📚 The UnAmericans, by Molly Antopol
📚 “Wants,” by Grace Paley

A new way of looking at To Kill a Mockingbird
“I realized that Atticus, as the protagonist [of the stage version of the] story, has to … have a flaw … It turned out that Harper Lee had [already] given him one; it’s just that when we all learned the book, it was taught as a virtue.”

📚 To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
🎭 To Kill a Mockingbird, by Aaron Sorkin

What Richard Pryor’s stand-up can teach writers
“When you take an empathetic perspective on the world, and step into things that don’t have human consciousness, you’re allowed access into moments in a way you never would be otherwise.”

📚 Love and Death in the Sunshine State, by Cutter Wood
🎭 Live on the Sunset Strip, by Richard Pryor

(Penguin Books)

Personal identity is (mostly) performance
“The objects with which we fill our homes play a vital role in how we construct our sense of self.”

📚 An excerpt from Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self, by Jennifer Ouellette

What Zadie Smith taught Roxane Gay: Identity is drag
“I was trying to figure out who I was and what might be possible for me. I was trying to write toward a space where I could reveal my most authentic self to the people who knew me but did not.”

📚 NW, by Zadie Smith
📚 An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

The Reference Desk

(New York Public Library)

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About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Rosa Inocencio Smith. She’s currently rereading The Princess Bride, by William Goldman.

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