Monday, October 20, 2008

A Case for Literature

I have a friend who asked me an interesting question once, sitting at my dining table with his back to my (now even more full) bookshelves. He looked back over his shoulder, waved a hand, and said, "I've never understood, what's the point of... all this?"

I asked him if he meant... books? But it turns out he gets books. He reads plenty, but it's literature, fiction, that he doesn't get. To explain something that happened, to cast history in a new light, sure, but why spend as much time and money as I've obviously spent on... stories.

I'm not sure how well I explained it, but memoirs, histories... they can only shed light on what was. Fiction, stories, can explore what could be. Not just actualities. Not even probabilities. All the possibilities. Maybe it's just me, or people like me. Maybe that's why I'm such a reader and why I became a writer. Maybe that's why all writers are writers, and something not everyone can understand. I've read accounts of history that deepened my understanding and broadened my mind. But I've read novels that completely changed my life.

I wouldn't be the person I am if Charlotte Brontë hadn't written Jane Eyre. I read it when I was something like thirteen. I guess I fell in love with Victorian England, but more to the point, I met a young woman who was intelligent and intensely rational, but at the same time deeply passionate and loving. Incredibly gentle, and incredibly strong. Young, alone, poor, and a woman when a woman had so little power for self-determination, she was offered everything she loved on terms she considered dishonorable, and offered everything honorable without love. She demanded life on her own terms, and she made that life for herself because no one else could give it to her. Of course, the story ends happy, and that's because it's a story. In life it needn't have, but still it might.

More recently I've been changed again. I always meant to read Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear, but I only got around to it this year. And after that I had to read the sequel, Valley of the Horses. Then the next book and the next. I devoured all five of the novels in the Earth's Children series. They present an incredibly deft portrait of civilizations like nothing I'd imagined. Of course, there's very little we know about those who really peopled those times and places, but it doesn't really matter that they may not have existed. They are evokative not because of strict factuality, but because of the possibility. If they don't show us what was, they show us what very well could have been, and by doing so, show us a surprising amount about what is and what could be, even now. These novels have made me feel and think in ways I never have before. I've changed in ways difficult to describe right now, because I continue to think on them, and to change.

So that's why. That's the point of literature, for me at least. It can change a person. It can change an ethos. Don't ask me to prove that in a blog. It's more of a doctoral thesis topic. And like I said, maybe that's just me.

But I wanted to ask you. Have you ever read a book that made you who you are today?

1 comment:

Katy said...

There was a series of books in middle school that I absolutely devoured... they were all centered around a girl finding love/romance. They all had historical settings. I must have read 15 or 20 of them. I think those books, and Little Women, and Jane Eyre and all those from that point in my life made me into a hopeless romantic.

I meant to answer this question before I went to Wisconsin... better late than never!