Monday, December 15, 2008

Why We Read

So as I was taking my final the other day in lit theory, I was thinking about why I think it's important to read literature. I feel like most people don't appreciate Beowulf or Hamlet, and that's too bad. What I find so incredible about literature is that it all fits into the entire scheme of the world. Plato quotes, "Poetry comes nearer to vital truth than history." That's a pretty powerful statement. But when I think about history, I realize that it is so subjective. Joy and I had a conversation about the validity of different accounts of history, and she asked what if a Nazi wrote an account and said the Holocaust didn't happen? I don't know how we could reconcile that... but on one hand, it really does just prove the point that people come in with their own bias to things. All history accounts contain whatever the author chose to put in there. So I'd guess that German history books look a little different than ours that talk about the six million people who died in the Holocaust. Yes, you can't change the facts. But you can pick and choose which ones to write and give a certain tone that allows someone to be the victim while another is the victimizer. So you can have the English colonists' perspective of coming to America, or there's the very different version that the Indians would tell you. Whose version holds more truth? Well they both combine to form the whole of things.
So the fact remains that history is different than literature because a lot of literature is fiction. Theorists have debated about why we read, what we should read, and how we should read... and they all come up with different ideas. Do we read for pleasure in the aesthetic, or do we read so that we can see the problems in politics, society, discrimination, etc. and feel empowered to make a change in the world? Does Beowulf tell us what kind of leader we should value? Well what if it is all the above? I think that there is a lot of literature that was just meant to be read for pleasure, just to get lost in the story and the characters... which means that we overanalyze sometimes. But even if Jane Austen isn't making some political statement with Pride and Prejudice in reinforcing the status quo of women having to find a man to attach themselves to or defying the status quo when Darcy marries a woman in a lower station than him.... well, even if that wasn't her purpose, we can see a perspective of life in the 1700's that we wouldn't normally get to experience. It's an experience much different than reading a history book about life in England in the 1700's. When you read and get in the head of a slave or a prisoner of war or a Catholic immigrant from Ireland... well you can know all the facts of the Vietnam War, and that's one thing... but to feel the experience of a POW, whether fact or fiction, that is another thing entirely. I strongly believe that it is absolutely necessary to expand your worldview and understand that the world is a lot bigger than what you feel and experience. What do we know about life besides being a white American in the middle class? Do we know anything about being so poor that there's nothing else to do but sell your children to a brothel? Could we ever comprehend NOT having water to drink? Do we know what it is like to live in a country torn by war? NO we don't, but if we did... I imagine we'd start thinking differently. And I wouldn't say it is the author of a text that changed our lives, our mode of thinking... but I'd say it definitely contributes. How could poetry come nearer to vital truth than history? Poetry doesn't just state the facts. It gives you more than just a statistic. It shows you the actual experience.
So here we are, making high schoolers read Hamlet and testing them on the facts... what is Hamlet's girlfriend's name? How does Polonius die? Well that makes literature just a bunch of facts. Wouldn't it be a lot more interesting to debate about whether Hamlet was pretending to be crazy or actually was crazy? Or why he didn't kill Claudius when he had the chance several times? I don't know, it's just a suggestion. I sure wish I had the chance to debate this in high school when I read Hamlet. I know part of that is just me being nerdy, but hey, if you have to read Hamlet, you can't deny that it you would get a lot more out of the experience of debating questions like this--questions that literary critics have been debating since forever-- rather than answering what happens to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Literature is really powerful, and I think it's time that we tap into that resource and start reading!


Teddi said...

This is awesome.
I have a sign in my room that says, "All that mankind has thought, grained, or been: it is living as in a magical preservation of the pages of books."
I share your love of words. :-)

Teddi said...