Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Power of Literature - Texts enrich

This is my second post on the 'Power of Literature'. In my last post (here) I argued that literature can teach many things - how language works, knowledge of the world and every element of narrative form including characterisation, plot and story development. In this post, I want to suggest that literature 'enriches' our lives.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

I grew up in a working class home where there were few books and no television until I was 11 years old. For me, life outside school was made up of sport, exploring the bush, swimming and fishing in the creek, annoying my sister, and playing in the street till dark. I wasn’t read to and I can’t remember more than a couple of books in my house. So when I arrived at school I wasn’t a reader.

Eventually, I learned to read from school readers. But it took 8 years of my life before I read my first complete book, not just a snippet of a book, a short story or a school text. I was 8 years of age and had been a reader for 3 years, but one Christmas I was given a copy of Jules Verne's 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea' at my Dad’s work picnic. This book captured my interest as soon as I began to read it. It engaged me. The quiet evil of Captain Nemo and his plan to use his cleverness to kill and terrify helpless seamen, captured my attention from the first pages. When the story took me into his cabin beneath the ocean’s surface, I could almost smell the leather in his furniture. I felt the panic of the sailors on the wooden hulled ships as the terrifying sight of a yellow-eyed monster came hurtling towards each ship in the darkness. As a child interested in making and inventing things I was fascinated by the technology alone, and was impressed by the fact that Verne wrote the book in 1869. This first introduction to science fiction offered depth and complexity that I’d never encountered before in school reading books. The book offered a richness of language, a complexity of themes and a simple but compelling plot that had me in as a reader.

The book taught me new things about language (for example, the mix of French and English names and vocabulary was my first brush with a foreign language) and new things about the sea. It also introduced me to science fiction, which was a genre I’d not experienced before, and it introduced literary themes that were new to me. But the book did more than teach me about language, reading and literature, it enriched me as a learner and as a person; that’s what books can do! The reading of this book has stayed with me for 50 years and has been part of the foundations of my literary history and experience. It is related intertextually with other narratives read, seen, heard and experienced as part of my life (I discuss intertextuality in various publications including 'Pathways to Literacy' London, Cassell, 1995).

Literature does more than just teach

Books offer children opportunities to consider, often for the first time, major issues such as life and death, pain and suffering, fear and frustration. New aspects of the human condition are brought into focus, language is extended, and literary devices for plot development and characterisation are observed and understood for the first time. Encounters between readers and texts have the great potential to teach much about reading and language (as I indicated in my last post), but they offer so much more. In book Pathways to Literature I argue that:

‘Literature is not just about story, it is about life and one’s world. It can act as a mirror to enable readers to reflect on life’s problems and circumstances; a source of knowledge; a means to peer into the past, and the future; a vehicle to other places; a means to reflect on inner struggles; an introduction to the realities of life and death; and a vehicle for the raising and discussion of social issues’ (pp 77-78).

Sometimes books do many of these things concurrently. Let me share just one example. In E.B. White’s classic story ‘Charlotte's Web’ we don’t just encounter a cute narrative about pigs, spiders and a host of barnyard animals, we encounter a story with richness of character and plot and an array of literary themes that intersect with children’s lives; not just in the moment of reading, but well into the future. Books stay with you; they intersect with your own lived experiences and those of others.

You can enjoy ‘Charlotte’s Web’ at the level of a simple narrative of a pig who meets a spider who has an impact on his life. But you can be moved by the rich thematic exploration of friendship, devotion, love, sacrifice and redemption. You can be amused, saddened, frustrated and confused by the characters and their actions. And you can certainly gain scientific knowledge about spiders. But beyond the things to be learned, here is a narrative so poignant that it buffets the emotions and can change the way we see things in our own lives.

When a memorial service was held for a sister of a friend who died suddenly at age 43, her husband in speaking of her self-less friendship and ability to give to others, was reminded of and used the words Charlotte had spoken just before her death as a summation of her life and words she might well have spoken:

By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle

These simple words spoken by a spider, in a kid’s book, had stayed with him and helped him to make sense of the loss of his wife and the mother of his three-year-old son. The words of Charlotte, dredged from his literary history and experience, had comforted him with the thought that his wife had touched many lives with her care, kindness and friendship and that her life, though short, had been rich and well lived. This is what I mean by the power of story. Stories can ‘teach’ and stories can 'enrich' our lives too.

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