My last year, the last semester of my last year of college, about to graduate, I was struck with a need to know what it was all for. I was studying ENGLISH. Beautiful, meaningful books, collected and dissected for students. And I loved every minute of it, only frustrated with not having enough time to talk more in the classes. These books and scenes and characters walked with me, as real as the students sitting next to me in class. MORE real. I did not know much about what my neighbors were doing, but I knew about Tess and Deerslayer and Song Liling.
Yet. As wonderful as it was to contemplate all of these people, and the people who created these people, I felt as if I were merely amusing myself. What purpose did this exercise serve? What for is this examination of scene and plot and character and inevitability? Yes, I loved it more than a sunny day, but there are many things that people love—it does not follow that you pursue what you love for love’s sake only.
No. There must be a purpose, a product, a reason, a destination. Perhaps, after all those classes, I had missed the point, the most important point, of why I was taking the classes at all.
Naturally, I had to ask. I went to most of my professors, maybe all of my professors, and said, “What is the purpose of studying literature?”
And I found that I had to say it again, differently. I have learned to do this. In Russia, when I was speaking the listeners’ language badly, or speaking my language for a hard-of-understanding listener, I learned to do this. I call it “learning the other person’s vocabulary.”
I thought that my professors had better vocabularies than I did. Perhaps they do, but vocabularies also have the underpinnings of ideas; if the ideas you express in a familiar vocabulary are foreign, even using well-known words won’t help you.
Surprisingly, my idea was foreign. It seemed to verge on blasphemy. Maybe like an upstart Galilean fisherman telling the educated elite than they missed a spot, I pointed at a hole in the fabric of my education.
Why study literature? What product is expected? What end result? What is the point? “Well, if you don’t know, perhaps you should not be studying in this field.”
Oh no…I have heard these kinds of question-parries before. The man I respect least in the world, the pastor of my childhood church, gave me those kinds of replies to hard questions. The ones that say, “By asking the question, you have betrayed yourself as unworthy of the answer.”
I am a question asker. I find no shame in betraying my ignorance. For me, the greatest shame is willfully sustained ignorance, and the best cure for that foul state is a question.
No, I know about the glory of books and words. I know how amazing they are, how they can be. That was not my question, Dr. Squelch.
I was reminded of that conversation, perhaps still stinging from the accusation that I did not really appreciate literature deeply, when I was listening to Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible on tape this weekend.
I had a long road trip to get through, and I love listening to a good story as I drive. This was my chosen tale.
The story pulled me in, with the strangest familial recognition, like meeting a cousin after forever and comparing the eerily identical stories of childhood memories with someone who was basically a stranger. I knew these people; I knew them because I had been them—and in ways that most of the universe never had been. As I was looking at myself by hearing the story of someone else, the process began. The first papery, painless layers of my onion-self peeled off easily, with the revealed experience-truth of the story women. I was there, unarmored, hearing and knowing what the women said. I smiled as I listened, a wry, knowing smile.
But the book did not stop at the shallow layers; it went on. It peeled away more, taking me further into their lives and my own than I had bargained for. In this story that I was now a part of, more and more was stripped away. It was painful, I felt the pulling away of live heart from the center. I was crying out loud long before the end or even the middle.
I was slain; this book made me look at places I didn’t even know were they to look at before. At first, I would have sworn that this book must have been autobiographical, it was that true. But then, I saw that it was fiction, and was truer than any true story. It could be nothing else.
This is what the beauty of literature is about. This kind of self-revelation that can be done by a total stranger. Telling a story in a way that makes it so true it changes your life.