Encountering the Other: How Literature Will Save the World

Lately, I’ve been thinking about reading.

A month ago, I asked you why the study of literature should be mandatory in college. You gave me lots of interesting responses (both here and on my OpenSalon blog).  Not only did you help me start formulating the research question I was looking for, but you also got me thinking about why I don’t read more.

Last summer I published a post in which I mourned the decline of reading, not just among my students and the population in general, but in my own life.  The upshot of the post is that I’m too vulnerable to easy distractions.  At the end of a long day, if I have the choice to pick up a book or waste hours on Facebook, I fall prey to the latter without even making a conscious decision.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my IB students  whether the two novels we’ve read so far have any sort of social or political purpose.  The discussion was interesting to begin with, but it took a turn into the even more profound when someone asked whether literature, in and of itself, has a social or political purpose.

There was a pause after this question.  Then I asked, “Why do we read?  What are books for?  If the novel goes the way of live theater – a medium appealing to only a small, relatively rarefied segment of the population – what, if anything, will be lost?  What can a novel do for us that other art forms can’t?”

I have my own pet answer to this question.  I believe that reading literature is the best, and perhaps the only, way to understand what it is like to be someone other than myself.  As we hashed the question around a bit, I proposed this answer to my students, and most of them seemed to find it convincing.

Marcel, however, had another bone he wanted to pick about this.  “People don’t read, because it takes time,” he said.  “You have to invest more time and work harder to receive a greater, delayed reward.  This is why people don’t read.  They are intellectually lazy.”

This assertion struck me hard, because, in my case at least, he’s right.  I know that an evening spent reading a book, whether it’s Proust or a P. D. James novel, will bring greater rewards than a night reading status updates and watching the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.  If I make the effort, I will be happier, I will feel calmer, I will sleep better, and I will probably even learn something.  But turning on the TV or the computer fills the echoey corners of my brain without my having to invest anything.  Most nights, this is more appealing than actually doing something.

Today, a friend sent me Mark Slouka’s essay “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School,” from last September’s Harper’s.  Here is another indicator of my laziness: a colleague sent me this article sometime last fall, I printed it up and carried it around with me for almost two months, and then I chucked it out.  When Wanda deposited it in my inbox today, I had stacks of papers to mark, so of course it was the perfect time to read it, and I did.  In her message, Wanda helpfully pulled the most salient quote out for me:

Happily ignoring the fact that the whole point of reading is to force us into an encounter with the other, our high schools and colleges labor mightily to provide students with mirrors of their own experience, lest they be made uncomfortable, effectively undercutting diversity in the name of diversity.

This assertion – that “the whole point of reading is to force us into an encounter with the other” – is at the root of my love of literature and of my belief in teaching literature.  It’s also why, at the end of the day, I’m reluctant to sit down with a book.  I am constantly looking for literature that will make me  feel cozy and reaffirmed, in which I will encounter things that are so familiar as to be transparent.  If I can’t have that, I don’t want to read at all.

And I question whether my students need to read literature, because I want them to have that cozy experience too.  I don’t want literature to be hard work for them.  I want them to love the books I give them, love them easily and wholeheartedly, and when they don’t, I wonder why they should read them at all.

Both my students and I need to work harder.  I have no excuse – I’ve been given all the training I need to approach reading with my sleeves rolled up, and I just don’t bother.  My students need that training, and I need to give it to them.  If I sincerely believe that reading helps us to understand what it’s like to be someone else, then I need to hand my students the tools to help them read – to help them read well, widely, attentively, and voraciously.

Because if there’s one thing that will rescue us, it’s our ability to understand one another, and I believe literature can help us find that.

Image by Jim Larranaga

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13 responses

  1. This struck me as particularly relevant given a situation I encountered in my class yesterday during a discussion of gender (always difficult I find). I was trying to make present day comparisons re: the status of women today and the depiction of women in Victorian Crime fiction, the upshot being that prejudice is alive and well today and in some ways has changed only a little in the last 100 years. One student who seemed angry and upset at my list of present day inequalities and stereotypes about women put up his hand, and somewhat aggressively said “what’s the point of all of this?”. I made a stab at trying to make the connection between the books we read and the society we live in for him, but the comment followed me throughout the entire evening in part because I was so dissapointed that he didn’t see the relationship between what we were reading and the world we live in. I believe so wholeheartedly that reading opens up a relationship with people and times and experiences that we would not otherwise have, and that if we don’t learn to really think about the things that we read, that like the young man in my class, we’ll all be stuck wondering what the point is.

    • I think “What’s the point of all this?” is a really common question in literature classes, even if students mostly ask it silently. Not only that, but defensiveness (such as that your student showed) is also really common, even if it’s not always so blatant.

      One of the greatest barriers to appreciating and learning from literature is our conviction that the way we see the world is, in fact, the way the world is. Our beliefs are so deeply embedded that any challenge to them becomes either threatening or alienating – we are “bored” and close the book, or we hurl the book at a wall. This is not just a question of a lack of education. I believe this is a fundamental aspect of human nature, but it’s an unfortunate and, at this time in history, a maladaptive one – we need to be trained out of it, and reading – and learning to read well – is one of the most effective forms of this training.

      Unfortunately, many of our students haven’t had this training yet. Can we give it to them? Sometimes I think we can’t – it’s too late, and we have so little time with them, and it’s so easy for them to shunt us aside. But every so often I see a glimmer of something that makes me wonder.

  2. I am a second-year university student in Ontario (Canada). I have been reading “classic literature” since I was about 8 or 9 – when I took J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings off my father’s bookshelf. Before that, I had read anything and everything I could get my hands on – most garbage YA fiction from the local library. I wanted to read everything. I can remember getting in trouble as a child for “reading at inappropriate times”; I was routinely chastised for reading during the anthem, during lessons, during another student’s presentation. I was also discouraged from reading ahead, and from reading beyond my grade level, and from asking for additional assigned readings or work. This is not to say that I was discouraged because I needed to focus on other areas – I was and continued to be a straight A+ student. I was discouraged because it frustrated the teachers. And because it made the other students uncomfortable.

    Somehow, despite all these opposing forces, I continued to read. I didn’t understand a lot of it. I picked out Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment at around 12, and I couldn’t really grasp it. But I know that the fact that I struggled through dense, wordy and sometimes archaic prose is the reason why I continue to read today. I developed a tolerance for it. I am satisfied to wait 100 pages before the plot becomes apparent. I can appreciate books without a lot of action and which instead focus on character development. I learned to pick apart subtle arguments and detect logical fallacies. But the only reason I read now, is because it is something I have always done, and enjoyed doing.

    Now I don’t read as much as I used to, and definitely not as much as I’d like to. As an environmental science major, none of my courses are in the arts or humanities disciplines, so no-one is forcing me to read literature anymore. I still read novels though – right now I am going through my second readings of Lord Jim and Middlemarch, and my third or fourth reading of East of Eden.

    I am glad I learned to enjoy reading as a child, because hardly anyone I know reads anymore, and when they try to, it is for a utilitarian purpose like doing well on the verbal comprehension section of the Medical School Admissions Test. But I feel very isolated, and like I am “going it alone” – there is no one I can talk to about what I am reading, because no one else is reading anything!

    I did take a comparative literature and culture course this year because I hoped it would help develop my critical thinking and writing skills. Instead, I got a professor who likes to talk, ostensibly in English but nigh incomprehensibly, at length about “the interpenetration of the notion of subjectivity and megalomania”. Is that supposed to mean something? Why do professors in the Arts & Humanities resort to this type of speech. It is so convoluted, and with no purpose!

    I am not sure what I am trying to get across here. I guess really that in my experience, you have to start reading at a young age and keep at it so it becomes routine – I am always reading no matter how many exams or lab assignments I have due. And also, that it is hard to be a reader now because there isn’t a reading culture – most people don’t know who Joseph Conrad is, let alone have read Heart of Darkness, so you can’t discuss it with others. Thirdly, that the discussion of literature doesn’t need to be so high and pure, because it serves only to exclude.

    And one last point I would like to make is that in literature, no matter the locale or the time period, I discover myself more often than I discover the “other”. Fundamental aspects of human nature are immutable and good authors recognize this and draw upon it to breathe life into their novels. I may learn some historical details or cultural quirks, but fundamentally people are people. I think this is an important lesson for students of literature. As people just like you, fictional characters can then become relevant sources of experiential knowledge and good role models.

    Just my $0.02

    • EastofEden:
      Thank you so much for this long and thoughtful response! My childhood experience is much like yours, except that my tastes were not so sophisticated, and I was lucky enough to receive a lot of encouragement (my parents were and are both great readers, and my teachers recognized my reading skills enough to advance me a grade in primary school.)

      I’m not sure I agree that there is not a reading culture. Maybe this is because I studied English in grad school and am now an English teacher – I’m surrounded by readers – but phenomena like Oprah’s Book Club suggest to me that even if not everyone is drawn to Conrad (I found him impenetrable myself), there is a desire out there to read more and read better.

      I agree that if we look deeply, even fictional characters who seem very different from us are not. It’s the “looking deeply” that can be tricky…

      Thanks again! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts.

    • Thanks so much for this, Mark: Kadare’s speech is truly moving, and I especially love the statement, “We believed in literature. In return for our belief and our fidelity, literature granted us her blessing and protection.”

  3. Extraordinary post. I had not previously recognized that particular benefit from reading which you identified – the connection to and understanding of others. As I reflect on it, reading, and reading literature specifically, certainly does engage us with others across geography, chronology, and culture.

    Our kids – and now I understand many adults – are becoming self-absorbed due to the nature of and time spent engaging in social media (Facebook, twitter). Moreover, the absorption appears to be very superficial. I recently heard that 25% of people who are on Facebook actually update their page before even getting out of bed in the morning. Seriously, what’s to update?

    Reading is difficult. Thinking – and I mean really being engaged in the task of thinking – is difficult. Both require exertion. I applaud your commitment to engage your students, and yourself, in the tasks of reading – and thinking about what you’re reading.

    • Thank you so much for linking on your own blog, Trish, and for leaving a comment here. I agree that as time passes, the world around us tends to foster, more and more, our natural tendency to be self-absorbed. I think reading counteracts that to some degree, not only because it connects us to different cultures and realities, but because it gives us the opportunity to see the world from inside someone else’s mind…

  4. Pingback: Check This Out | Commitment to Learning

  5. Hey,

    I have a few points to make, albeit late in the day. Firstly, I’m not much of a reader, as in a reader of literature, but I ‘read’ all the time, as in blog posts, articles, news reports etc. Reading literature also takes up my time (I’m currently re-reading One Hundred Years of Solitude), but not as much as I would like to. Is there value in reading a lot (A LOT) but no necessarily fiction? If not in terms of putting yourself in another person’s place, it certainly does improve your knowledge of the world, of the language etc.
    Secondly, Reading DOES take up a lot of time, and since that is the case, there is the tendency to pick-out things that are ‘worth reading’ rather than reading anything at random, which carries greater risk, greater time, but possibly more unique rewards. There is so much to know and so little time!
    Thirdly, I’d just like to add what two eminent men said and connect it to your central point about being in another’s shoes. Barack Obama mentioned in an interview (on youtube, I think, with Will Smith) that you need to expand your ‘moral imagination’. The specific example he used was that of a woman in Bangladesh whose house gets flooded. Though he wasn’t referring to literature in particular, I think literature is critical in expanding one’s moral imagination, and I think one of its main benefits over other forms of reading. Secondly, Christopher Hitchens mentioned that literature is a great place for the resolution of moral and ethical dilemmas, as it offers complex ‘real world’ situations in which to fight the demons one meets on a daily basis.

    - Arunabh

  6. God! Despite randomly wandering through your posts so often, there are still so many great posts yet left. You know right, you can compile an entire book on this pseudonym with all these posts and their discussions?

    In my school, we never had a class focused on learning literature. All the ‘English’ lectures just focused on basic grammar and a few comprehensions, and a two page essay and letter writing.

    The primary reason I read, you perfectly explained in the line above and touched my heart with..
    >>looking for literature that will make me feel cozy and reaffirmed, in which I will encounter things that are so familiar as to be transparent. If I can’t have that, I don’t want to read at all.

    And yeah, I always read them complete.

    And by the end of every book I read, “I feel like I’ve lost a friend”.

  7. My english teacher used this article as an example in our english class to tell us the importance of literature, and the big thougts behind it. I learned a lot. thank you!

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