Day 29: The universal power of literature

Today we’re going back in time, to my Brit Lit I Survey Class at Capital University, fall of 2001.

Yes, that was a Big Fall for a lot of us. (9/11, me-almost-dying-and-spending-two-plus-weeks-in-the-ICU-scaring-everyone-to-death)

But before–and during, and after–that, there were classes.

My Brit Lit survey class was taught by my favorite English professor, Dr. Summers, and had one of my best friends in it. It was a full class–we had about 25, 30 kids–and we were reading literature from Beowulf to Shakespeare/the Restoration. (Brit Lit Survey II started with the Romantic poets and went to the end of the 20th century.) Not only was the reading great, but the discussions were awesome. There were a lot of smart, engaged kids in that class. We met every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 11 a.m., so when class was over, Richelle and I would walk to the Main Dining Room and have lunch. It was pretty perfect.

The “quad” at Capital University, my alma mater

One of the things we talked about was the idea of universal experiences. Do universal experiences exist? Some students argued no; our lives are too different. What does my life and the life of someone in, say, Bangladesh have in common?

I argued that we do have a lot in common with each other: for starters, birth, death, and love. Each of us will be born. Each of us will die. Each of us will experience love–either receiving it, giving it, sharing it, falling in it, knowing the lack of it…in some way, love will touch everyone’s lives. It’s inescapable. Everything else may be negotiable, but not these three things.

Literature brings everyone closer. C.S. Lewis said, “we read to know we’re not alone.” Great books leave time behind and immerse us in the world of the novel, the poem, the play. We feel Cordelia’s despair when she cannot “heave [her] heart into her mouth.” We cringe with Elizabeth Bennet when her mother makes a fool of herself at the Netherfield Ball. We love Tiny Tim and rejoice in Scrooge’s change of heart. Voldermort’s death is celebrated, Dorothy gets to go home, and Scarlett reminds us that tomorrow is another day. We climb the turrets of Notre Dame with Quasimodo, and are swept into Russia by Dostoevksy’s incomparable epics. I’ve never been to Greece, but when I read The Odyssey, I can imagine dawn’s rosy fingers rising over the wine-dark sea. I’ve never been in jail, but I can understand and know the despair and the pain from reading Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Books grow and change with us. I own a lot of books, and sometimes, when people come to my house and see all the books everywhere, they ask why. Why read a book more than once? You know the ending.

The book doesn’t change. change. Although a good book is always good (C.S. Lewis again–a children’s book is only good if it speaks to adults and children alike), what I get out of it can change wildly. I hated Wuthering Heights the first time I read it. I thought the characters were awful. No one acts like that! But when I read it just a few years later, having been in that kind of passionate love, I liked it much better. I’ll never go out onto the moors and night and yell “Cathy!” while banging my head against a tree, but I can understand what drives Heathcliff to do it.

Words and stories can unite us and show what we have in common, which is so much more than what divides us. All cultures share stories, whether by mouth or by papers passed down through generations. Fairy tales are a great example of that–there’s a Cinderella, a Red Riding Hood, a Snow White almost everywhere in the world. The defeat of evil and the triumph of good are universally desired.

When we think of all the things that make us different–let’s look at the things that are the same. Literature is a great place to start.

Once upon a time…

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