What’s the Point of Reading Literature, Anyway?

point of reading literature

What’s the point of reading literature?

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. Bergeron demanded. “It’s because you cannot experience everything in one lifetime. Reading 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.

White Road

While pregnant with my first child and with my husband sailing the seas of the Cold War, 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. She 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 20th 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.

He coughed.

But he did present me with a splendid opal necklace.

Death

point of reading literature

I returned to the books and joy of reading but didn’t think much more of Mr. Bergeron’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.

Reading literature had prepared me, somehow, for this sober, disturbing, moment.

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 of how I knew to behave. What reading of literature had told me how. 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, other than to know literature I had read in the past helped me to move with grace in the present.

Grace

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 take-away 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 some books in particular  materially changed how you’ve lived your life?

Other than the need to own jewelry, of course.

(And no, I don’t have sufficient jewelry to supply two years worth of living expenses . . . )

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8 Comments

  1. Kim

     /  May 15, 2012

    Poignant and thought-provoking post, Michelle. I can relate about your mother; I was a basket case during the part of the experience you describe, but somehow I knew exactly what to do when it came time to receive visitors without giving it any conscious thought. Now you’ll have me thinking back to what book prepared me for that experience! My mother was a voracious reader; she would have loved your thoughts on this subject.

    Reply
  2. Gilda Weisskopf

     /  May 15, 2012

    You certainly have got my juices flowing. I can’t get today’s blog out of my head. But I still can’t come up with a particular book that has changed my life (but I am still thinking). I read a lot of historical fiction, especially pioneer days up to early 1900’s. What I have learned from these historical accounts is that I am glad I did not live in those times. I always thought I would have loved to live then after watching Little House on the Prairie. TV and real life are quite different. So I’ll keep my washing machine, tooth brush and toothpaste, even my TV and I’ll keep thinking about a book(s) that changed my life. Thanks for making me think.

    Reply
    • Thanks for commenting Gilda!

      I’m sure you’ve been influenced by even historical fiction. People’s hearts and attitudes don’t change so much over time. We all have fears, we all try to allay our worries and we all figure out ways to cope.

      Whenever I watch my dog turn three times on her bed before settling down, I think of Jack, Laura’s well-loved dog. Whenever I near the end of a sewing project and feel like I’m going to scream if I have to take out another seam, I remember Pa buying Ma a sewing machine by trading in the calf and how Laura realized, finally, that Ma actually hated sewing by the way she held the pins between her lips.

      (I almost always think of Ma when I put straight pins between my lips!).

      And that’s part of the beauty of well-loved books–how they get so much into our heart and soul, we don’t even realize they’re there until we actually think about it.

      (I also always clean to classical music–just like Mrs. Austin did in Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet the Austins!)

      Reply
  3. grant.hayter-menzies

     /  February 25, 2014

    Hello Michelle… this is a beautiful, witty and heartfelt piece about a wonderful book and author. I want to let you know that my biography of Olga Ilyin has been accepted for publication by McFarland & Company. I tell the rest of Olga’s story after she, her husband, and son came to America, and the book will include a key to the real names behind the pseudonyms Olga used. And there will be lots of photographs from her family in the US and from Russia. Stay tuned….

    All best to you – Grant

    Reply
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