Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

6.07.2012

Another One of Those Contradictory Beliefs

Or, Why I Read

I'm always going on about the power and value of fiction, how stories shape us and help create our both individual and collective identities.  I did so most recently here, including this quote:

The best morals kids get from any book is just the capacity to empathize with other people, to care about the characters and their feelings.  So you don't have to write a preachy book to do that.  You just make it a fun book with characters they care about, and they will become better people as a result.

That's a pretty good summary of much of what I believe about reading, that fun is the highest priority because learning takes place even while reading fluff.

But that's not everything I believe about it.  What follows may seem to contradict my usual rants, but then I'm also always saying it's good to embrace contraction and paradox.

It goes back to when I realized halfway through college that I was an English major.  I was stuck on one of those Big Questions; in this case, "What do I love so much that I can spend a third of my life focused on it to the exclusion of other pursuits?"  The kind of question that is so daunting that it's impossible to answer due to the fear of getting it wrong.

Yet one day I knew.  What I loved doing more than anything was thinking about life and learning about life from other thinkers, those from different places and times with a particular talent for articulating Wisdom and Truth and Connection in writing.  While reading had been one of my life's great pleasures, I didn't ultimately read purely for for escapist fun, but to learn more about myself, others, and the human condition.  Literature was philosophy and history and social commentary and group identity and so much more all rolled into one; literature helped me understand, and I wanted to understand more and constantly experience that little thrill of insight that comes from someone else's words illuminating my own experiences, and I wanted to share that love with others.

So I may be the big reading-for-fun advocate in my work with kids and constantly preach against preachy, moralistic, patronizing, pedantic books, but that's all in the service of the greater goal of helping them develop an intrinsic love of reading and books so that they become independent seekers of great reads who are not scarred by imposed boredom and reading agony.  It must be self-initiated, the quest for connection in the words of others, or it won't add up to anything meaningful.  I believe if we can help kids develop a love of reading, the rest will follow; if we try to skip that foundation, the rest will crumble.

Anyway, I was reminded of this by an article someone (can't remember who) recently (well, like a month ago) shared on Facebook.  Here's an extended excerpt, that I absolutely love:

(And, by the way, I believe I excelled in my college literature classes--and by excelled I mean I was that annoying guy who had his papers read to the class by the professors, said insightful-sounding things in class, and who received the top scholarship for the department--because I never lost track of my passion for learning to better myself from what I read.  Well, and because I knew how to play the game and give professors what they wanted to hear, but also because I found a way to do it for myself at the same time and not lose sight of what I loved about it, as described below.)

The Education of the Soul: The Forsaken Ideal of Literary Study

Even as I felt it happening, Thoreau described my experience:
There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a new book.
Although I dated a new era in my life from Walden I did not straightaway build a cabin and live in it. (I did get rid of my stereo -- for any college student, an act of nearly Carthusian renunciation.) Walden's effect on me was internal, not material. I discovered my love for wise and stirring voices, authors who could cast spells and teach truths.

So the question I asked that day in the graduate seminar was "Is he right?" I meant, "Have Thoreau's words changed your mind? Your life? Have these lines seized your spirit as they seized mine?" No such question had been raised in the three days of discussion, yet I asked it apologetically, of course, for I was (in the first place) breaking the unspoken agreement palpable in every classroom when a topic is "done" and the next syllabus item can now be covered. Worse yet, I knew how naïve I sounded. I had raised what Falstaff calls "a question not to be asked." It was met with awkward silence; the professor and the other students were embarrassed for me, and actually averted their eyes. As a graduate student I was supposed to know that Walden was not a (perhaps life-changing) book, but a text, a verbal or cultural artifact to be categorized, or a field for the play of literary theory. We studied literature professionally; we did not learn from it. How unsophisticated and sophomoric literally -- since I'd first read Walden as a sophomore -- of me to ask the class members about a book's effect on their souls. Did I really intend to have the class examine, defend, and even alter their way of life in light of Thoreau's personal example and compelling declarations?

I did, despite my diffidence in asking. As far as I could tell, Thoreau had written his book to prompt self-inquisition in his audience. Walden is a prolonged exhortation: "I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up" (1). It seemed to me intellectually -- no, humanly -- dishonest not to encounter a book, at least once during its classroom treatment, on its own stated terms. If we read and discussed works only from the outside (maintaining "critical distance"), as if we were not being addressed by the author, if only undergrads or "general" readers were simple enough to have their minds or souls enchanted and transformed by a book, then graduate and professorial literary study was reduced to an exercise in competitive cleverness. . . . 

Now, by way of commentary upon such impersonal reading, from Walden:
There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but to so love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically but practically. The success of great scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not kingly, not manly.
Thoreau is commenting upon his own times, but his observations remain uncannily applicable which is why Walden is a classic. That day in the seminar I longed for a "practical" rather than a "theoretical" reading of *Walden,* but I never got an answer to my awkward question, "Is he right? Has he changed you?" After a few moments the professor joked that with the glut of Ph.D.s on the market all of us aspiring academics would soon be living lives of involuntary Thoreauvian poverty. Then we turned to Hawthorne. . . .

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