Remembering a prominent ISI alumnus
Why You Need to Read Literature
College is full of books: textbooks and biographies, encyclopedias and novels, history books and essays. You finish your Epic of Gilgamesh book report and skim your way through the Iliad; guzzle down Plato’s Republic and then delve into a worn and weary biology textbook. So it goes.
Amid all the reading and writing, something within us often dies. Somewhere between the physics homework and the paper on Theodore Roosevelt and imperialism, you can lose an imaginative, creative spark.
It’s possible to reenergize this spark via several creative disciplines: by playing a musical instrument, for instance, or through sketching, painting, baking, or writing poetry. But there is another important and easy way to reawaken the dying embers of a creative spirit: by reading literature.
Reading “for pleasure” is an easy habit to neglect. There’s so much to read, after all; your assigned reading list seems to extend into eternity, promising sleepless nights and a desperate caffeine craving.
But you need literature—regardless of major, and apart from all the nonfiction reading that fills our college years.
Famed Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is … the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”
I recently read a passage that beautifully illustrates this truth—in Dunbar, Edward St. Aubyn’s new adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic King Lear:
He found that the more resolutely he narrowed his field of vision, the more complexity seemed to emerge from it: the gray rocks on the edge of the path were covered in patches of white and acid green lichen, and where water gathered in cracks and hollows there were pockets of dark velvety moss. The broken rock on the path itself showed traces of rusty red and sometimes the momentary glitter of crystal. Like a child on the beach, he wanted to pick up the smooth stone with a white mineral vein encircling its dark surface, but he knew there would be no one to show it to.
By the time he reached the stream, he no longer felt protected by his downward gaze; on the contrary, it seemed to be drawing him into a vertigo of detail, a microscopic world that he didn’t need a microscope to imagine, where every patch of lichen was a strangely colored forest of spores, their trunks rearing from the stony planet on which they lived.
Dunbar’s narration of detail and complexity in a country scene draws us in and offers us new vision. The passage is replete with realistic detail, but within that realism we discover depth and curiosity, fear and awe. In a biology class, you may learn all about plant and water life, about moss and lichen. But do you truly see them without also considering the mysterious intricacy of their private universe? This is what St. Aubyn tempts us to consider in Dunbar—what O’Connor identifies as the essential purpose of art, and therefore also of fiction.
Works of literature wake us up, committing our tepid bodies to an unexpected plunge into frigid water. We emerge eyes stinging, blood coursing, fully alive. We don’t return to our studies—or our lives—the same.
“Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.” Thus Nora Zeale Hurston introduces her protagonist in Their Eyes Were Watching God, a stunning and glorious work of literature.
Textbooks can give you meaning and meat. But they can’t give you potency. They can’t give you these tantalizing layers of reality and mystery. That is what literature is for.
As Marilynne Robinson puts it in her Pulitzer Prize winner, Gilead: “It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance. … Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?” Sometimes literature offers us both vision and the courage—if we’re willing to commit ourselves to the text.
There were times during college when writer’s block threatened me with failing grades or missed deadlines. Scrambling for inspiration, I’d pick up a book—perhaps something I was reading for Western Lit, or a book I’d perused during Christmas break—and suddenly an idea would jump out of the text. Anna Karenina offered the perfect foil for a philosophy paper, Joseph Conrad suggested a new connection with Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. For the student, literature offers new ways of seeing academic principles and ideas: it can often suggest ways to recast the drabness of data and argument into flesh and blood, plot and drama.
But literature doesn’t just inspire our intellect: it can also offer new insights into our emotional and spiritual lives. Dostoevsky’s characters offer heroic inspiration (and fearful admonition). John Steinbeck carries us through darkness and dread into the promise of redemption. Frodo Baggins’s self-sacrificial journey, Harry Potter’s dark premonitions of doom, Ender Wiggins’s battle with self and the other: all offer moments of hope, wonder, and inspiration.
Because our lives seem so boring and prosaic—devoid as they are of Voldemorts and Saurons—we need occasional inspiration. In fact, we need inspiration from Harry and Frodo because our lives so often lack tangible foes or life-and-death scenarios. Because we fail to comprehend our battles in the beige moments of existence, we need the fantastical and fearful to wake us up. Works of literature, by recasting our angels and demons, revive our energy and virtue. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “[Fairy tales] make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”
Writing can also become an exercise in pulling talent and finesse from other authors. Ernest Hemingway teaches us how to write with short, concise strokes. Jane Austen shares wisdom and wit with every paragraph. Toni Morrison weaves poetry into every sentence. By reading these writers, we become better writers ourselves.
But why do stories matter? Why are they necessary for a fruitful and artistic life? Why must we seek out more than mere fact and data?
For that answer, we must turn to Russell Kirk. In his classic essay on the moral imagination, Kirk suggests that literature teaches us what it means to be fully human—by instructing its readers in “their true nature, their dignity, and their place in the scheme of things.” From Homer to Hawthorne, Dickens to Dante, classic authors have captured and preserved the essential truths of the human condition in a way that awakens our consciences to truth. “It is the moral imagination which informs us concerning the dignity of human nature, which instructs us that we are more than naked apes,” argues Kirk.
Of course, not all literature is equal; Kirk suggests that much modern literature feeds the “idyllic imagination,” a sentimental beast that “terminates in disillusion and boredom,” or the “diabolic imagination,” which “delights in the perverse and subhuman.” These things don’t grow our brains or souls; they feed temporal cravings and baser appetites.
The moral imagination, on the other hand, is cultivated by permanent things: by morals and manners, virtue and truth. It’s important to note that Kirk isn’t here calling for preachy literature; indeed, he notes that “the better the artist, one almost may say, the more subtle the preacher. Imaginative persuasion, not blunt exhortation, commonly is the method of the literary champion of norms.”
But books that carry within them such lofty, high ideals can’t help but leave an impression on the reader; they guide our behavior, lifting us out of ourselves and setting us on a wider sphere of understanding. “Sheer experience, as Franklin suggested, is the teacher of born fools,” writes Kirk. “Our lives are too brief and confused for most men to develop any normative pattern from their private experience … therefore we turn to the bank and capital of the ages, the normative knowledge found in revelation, authority, and historical experience, if we seek guidance in morals, taste, and politics.”
Perhaps the perfect example of a world rooted only in private experience comes (not necessarily ironically) from literature itself: from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley describes a society that has locked up and forgotten its works of literature and philosophy, and instead occupies itself by seeking out momentary pleasures and sexual satisfaction. For these citizens, there’s no profounder inquiry, no deeper meaning in life.
Into this dystopian landscape emerges “the Savage,” a young man who was raised in the wilds of the West and upholds a handful of ancient volumes as his tutors. He quotes Shakespeare and the Bible and strives to live out gentlemanly norms. He’s thwarted at every turn by a culture that no longer understands virtue or heroism, until he finally succumbs to despair.
This is what life without the moral imagination looks like. “If we starve young people for imagination, adventure, and some sort of heroism,” warns Kirk, their moral core will wither and perish. As O’Connor points out, works that offer fantasy and mystery draw our souls to the unknown and eternal. Heroic novels inspire our souls to courage. All that they teach us is real, fictional though the stories may be.
“Fiction is truer than fact,” writes Kirk. “In great fiction we obtain the distilled wisdom of men of genius, understandings of human nature which we could attain—if at all—unaided by books, only at the end of life, after numberless painful experiences.”
In other words, literature teaches us wisdom. And that wisdom is hard-bought if built solely in isolation.
A final, necessary note: literature is delightful. It’s wondrous, exciting, and often terrifying fun. It offers us escape without the cost of a plane ticket, adventure without deadlines or endpoints. It’s spontaneous and soul-searching, lengthy and pointed, poignant and hilarious. Some literary works speak to us collectively, with a wisdom that’s been handed down through the ages. Others offer personal admonition and inspiration, bringing our brains and eyes out of muddled exhaustion into new clarity.
So we shouldn’t read just to be “edified,” to find inspiration or to “get something” out of the text. We should read for its own sake: read to discover the delights of a new story. We should leave our presumptions and predictions on the frontispiece, and abandon everything to the text. We won’t be disappointed.
But How Do You Find Time to Read?
It is, admittedly, difficult to read “for its own sake” as a college student. Beyond assigned texts (which are often skimmed in haste), we have little time to pick up large volumes by the likes of Tolstoy or Steinbeck.
But semester breaks offer opportunities for literary retreat. You could try to read a fantasy series (like The Lord of the Rings or C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy) over Christmas break, pick up a Hemingway novel during Thanksgiving, or a Donna Tartt novel during the summer.
It’s also worth trying out audiobooks, via Audible or other platforms. Audible creates reading opportunities during road trips, grocery-store runs, or long plane rides home for the holidays. You can “read” audiobooks during walks to and from classes, workouts, or right before bed.
Reading literature is difficult during college but not impossible. What’s more, it’s worth all the work and commitment—for its own sake, as well as for the various lessons and inspirations it offers. Long after you’ve forgotten the equations and dates, data points and definitions, that filled your college years, the stories you read will remain: nurturing and growing both soul and imagination.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.
Complement with Russell Kirk on the true purpose of a liberal arts education, Jessica Hooten Wilson on what Flannery O’Connor’s stories reveal about politics today, and what “beauty will save the world” means according to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
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