To 'Become a Thousand Men'
By: Gina R. Dalfonzo|Published: June 22, 2006 2:51 PM
Why We Need Literature
This article first appeared in the June 2005 issue of BreakPoint WorldView magazine. Subscribe today or get someone you know a gift subscription! Call 1-877-322-5527.
In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report titled, “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.” As the title suggests, the news about reading in America isn’t great. In the preface to the report, NEA President Dana Gioia—not generally known as an alarmist—goes so far as to call the results “dire.”
Essayist Joseph Epstein in the Weekly Standard provided a helpful summary of the study’s findings:
“Reading at Risk” reports that there has been a decline in the reading of novels, poems, and plays of roughly 10 percentage points for all age cohorts between 1982 and 2002, with actual numbers of readers having gained only slightly despite a large growth (of 40 million people) in the overall population. . . . But the rate of decline is greatest among young adults 18 to 24 years old, and the survey quotes yet another study, this one made by the National Institute for Literacy, showing that things are not looking any better for kids between 13 and 17, but are even a little worse.
Epstein, nevertheless, suggests that things aren’t quite as bad as they appear. He points out that the survey didn’t take into account readers of “serious nonfiction.” Thus, he explains, “One could be reading a steady diet of St. Augustine, Samuel Johnson, and John Ruskin and fall outside the boundaries of what the report calls ‘literary’ readers.”
A little balance is a good thing, and it’s true that the details on which Epstein focuses make the picture look a bit brighter. All the same, the decline of reading of “imaginative literature,” as Epstein calls it, is cause for concern.
‘THE FLESH OF THE DAILY LIFE’
“In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. . . . Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
With these words the great Christian writer, educator, and critic C. S. Lewis concluded his book An Experiment in Criticism. There are few better descriptions of what reading good books can do for us. Like the other activities Lewis describes, reading can take us outside ourselves and ultimately broaden our perspective. It lets us see into the minds of people who may be utterly unlike us, to understand their thinking in a way we couldn’t otherwise.
Take the recently released novel Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, which examines the highly controversial topic of cloning. Unlike a pundit or a reporter, Ishiguro approaches the subject in a very personal way. He simply tells the story of a young girl and her friends at an English boarding school.
Ishiguro—best known for his novel The Remains of the Day, another deceptively calm story—never makes any explicit argument for or against cloning. Rather, he uses a fiction writer’s techniques, such as careful use of point of view, to bring us to a full realization of what it means to be human, what it means to create life in one’s own image, and how the world feels toward those who are, for some reason, seen as “inferior.” We become so immersed in the characters’ world that we come to share in their horror and grief over the tragedy at the root of their existence. And we come away with a new, sobering appreciation of an issue we may never have considered very carefully before.
Which is not to say that reading is a wholly pragmatic activity, like a homework assignment for Psychology 101. We read for enjoyment as well as for enlightenment. We read Dickens for the sheer love of words and the pleasure of meeting new and unusual characters. We race through a mystery by Agatha Christie for the breathtaking excitement of a good plot, or linger over a P. G. Wodehouse story for the pure fun of it. But even this enjoyment enriches our understanding and our intellect. Education and delight are so intertwined in the reading of a good book that it’s impossible to say where one leaves off and the other begins.
Another contemporary novel serves to illustrate this point. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, is another book where little seems to happen. And yet, whereas Never Let Me Go’s quiet surface hid troubled depths, at the heart of Gilead is a profound peace.
Not long ago, I inadvertently turned off a friend to the book by telling her it was about a dying minister writing a letter to his young son. But there is nothing morbid about the story, though there is the natural heartache of a man who has only just gained what most men gain much earlier in life, and is now preparing to let it go.
The book’s appeal for me, and I think for many others, lies in a quality that many would see as old-fashioned: the sense of holiness that pervades it. John Ames, the narrator, disproves all the clichés about how evil characters are so much more enticing than good characters. This simple story of a good man who loves God, loves his family, and is struggling to love a troubled young man he has always disliked, is so beautiful and moving that it won a Pulitzer Prize, not to mention the admiration of audiences of all backgrounds and beliefs.
As Harvard professor and child psychiatrist Robert Coles puts it, “Stories encourage the moral imagination to work, and they are concrete and connected to everyday experience. Abstract formulations and risks are in one ear and out the next, and even if we memorize them, they don’t have the flesh of the daily life.”
‘THE MAIN TIDE OF HUMAN EXISTENCE’
Of course, it’s crucial to remember that reading can have this effect on us only if we bring to it a humility and a willingness to learn. I’m reminded of an article that ran in the online magazine Slate a few months ago. Assistant editor Julia Turner noted “how easy it is to be wooed by the first lady’s reading habits. . . . More than one commentator has noted with approval and some surprise that Laura Bush’s favorite scene in literature is the ‘Grand Inquisitor’ portion of The Brothers Karamazov [by Fyodor Dostoevsky].” That’s why Turner was shocked and disappointed to learn that Laura Bush didn’t share Turner’s own political point of view (even though the fact that Laura Bush is married to George Bush should have given Turner a clue about her political beliefs).
This is, if I’m not being too hard on Turner in saying so, exactly the wrong attitude to bring toward one’s reading. It breeds arrogance rather than understanding. Great literature, to the extent that it reflects the truths that our Creator has written on every human heart, draws people from all walks of life—just as the openly Christian story in Gilead does. We shouldn’t expect everyone to be affected it by it exactly as we are. On the contrary, when we find that we share a love of literature with someone very different from ourselves, we should become aware of just how much more we may have in common with that person than we might have realized.
Not long after he became a Christian, C. S. Lewis wrote to his brother, Warren, “How on earth did we manage to enjoy all these books so much as we did in the days when we had really no conception of what was at the centre of them? Sir, he who embraces the Christian revelation rejoins the main tide of human existence!” Although literature is not meant directly to evangelize, truly good literature has a way of casting aside our own agendas and preoccupations and drawing us a little closer to ultimate truth—about God, about the universe, about ourselves.
In a recent speech to the Faith and Law group in Washington, D.C., Dana Gioia reminded his audience that Jesus spoke in parables because He “understood that truth is not easily paraphrasable.” A story “speaks to you in the fullness of your humanity,” and in turn, it requires that you bring to it the fullness of your experience. It helps us “understand who we are, what is our place . . . our mortality . . . and what lies beyond it.”
And this is why the reading of imaginative literature is so vital, why we cannot allow ourselves to become a nation of non-readers. Nothing else speaks to us quite on the same level that literature does. It is a source of spiritual and emotional nourishment, and without it, something inside us dries up. We lose a critical connection with the world and with each other. And then our situation is indeed dire.
Gina R. Dalfonzo is a writer for BreakPoint and a graduate student at George Mason University. She is also an occasional contributor to the online publications Boundless and National Review Online.
Two wonderful resources that reacquaint and guide readers of literature are Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination by Vigen Guroian, and Invitation to the Classics: A Guide to Books You’ve Always Wanted to Read by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness.