Awhile back my friend Michelle Ule wrote this lovely post about why great literature is important, especially for anyone who aspires to be human. I’m rerunning it here with her permission.
What’s the Point of Reading Literature, Anyway?
Long ago and far away when I was a senior in high school, my AP English teacher stopped in the middle of a lecture to scold us.
“Do you know why we read great works of literature?” Mr. Lagesse demanded. “It’s because you cannot experience everything in one lifetime. Literature enables you to learn how to act and behave when you confront a new situation because you’ve read about how someone else lived through the experience. It’s a tool for life.”
I was paying attention that day and intrigued by the idea I could prepare ahead for whatever life would throw me by reading. Sort of like cribbing for the final. So I read more widely and with greater enthusiasm because, well, you never know what life, God, the Navy, or even your brother, will throw at you.
While my husband sailed the seas of the Cold War and I was alone and pregnant with my first child, I fell in love with Olga Ilyin’s White Road. A fictionalized memoir of a poet in 1919 Russia—she fled her family home with a two-week-old baby, a babushka, two bottles, and all her jewelry sewn into her underwear—Olga spent years sledding across frozen Siberia trailing after her White Russian husband. A member of the dashing cavalry, he fought off the Bolsheviks until ultimately reaching the sea in Vladivostok. Olga and the baby, of course, had gotten lost along the way.
The language, the story, the horror, the astonishing blessed conclusion … As soon as I finished it, I turned to the first page and started over again. But what did I, another new mother/military officer’s wife in twentieth-century Groton, Connecticut, take away from Olga’s experience?
“I’m going to need sufficient jewelry to live on for at least two years,” I explained to my lieutenant when he finally battled the Atlantic Ocean home in his nuclear submarine.
But he did present me with a splendid opal necklace.
I returned to the books and joy of reading but didn’t think much more of Mr. Lagesse’s admonition until years later when my mother died.
Somehow in the midst of that shocking grief, without thought, I knew how to act. It was as if someone had taken over, put words in my mouth, and allowed the numbness of my soul to behave in a presentable fashion. Sitting in the mortuary discussing caskets with my father, brother, and the mortician, I noted in fascination how my voice modulated, my knees clenched together, my back never touched the chair and I remained in total control through the most horrific conversation of my life.
I remember feeling gentle, kind, and tender—while I wanted to scream with rage and grief. But I knew the men were looking to me. I knew that if I fell apart they would not be able to hold themselves together. Perhaps that day we were most solicitous of each other because the fragile crystals that bound us had been shaken to the atom and if we took one more hit would shatter into irreparable shards.
That night, alone in my parent’s guest room, I tried to think how I knew to behave. What part was I playing? Marmee? How had she managed Beth’s death? Melanie in Gone With the Wind? I’ve never been able to peg it definitely, other than to know that what I had read in the past helped me to move with grace in the present.
Perhaps that’s why I approach books, memoirs in particular, with a lively curiosity about what I can learn from them. Even a novel has to have a positive takeaway for me to appreciate it. If I’m not a better person, or have gained a new perspective on something as the result of reading a book, why bother? There’s certainly easier entertainment out there.
Which is probably why the Bible, at least, makes the safest reading if I’m looking for a point. Nothing in it returns void. Solomon reminds us that of the making of books there is no end … but have there been some books in particular that have materially changed how you’ve lived your life?
Other than an awareness of the need to own jewelry, of course. (And no, I don’t have sufficient jewelry to supply two years worth of living expenses …)
Michelle Ule is a writer, Bible study teacher, and editorial assistant at Books & Such Literary Agency. Her debut novella, The Dogtrot Christmas in A Log Cabin Christmas Collection, released in September 2011 and was a New York Times Best Seller. You can read her thoughts at michelleule.wordpress.com or at www.Booksandsuch.biz/blog. You can also follow her on Twitter (@MichelleUle).
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”