Friday, May 1, 2009

The Power of Literature - Texts Transform

As I said in my first post in this series on ‘The Power of Literature’ that I grew up in a working class home where there were few books. In fact, there was 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. Later in life I became a reader and came to see how literature can teach (my first post) and also enrich our lives (my second post).

However, as a middle-aged researcher I came to an even more startling conclusion one day about my early literacy experiences. While I had limited experience of literature I had been immersed at home in narrative recounts, anecdotes and poetry. Both my father and my grandfather were constant sources of story and poetry. My father (Henry Cairney) was a Scottish Coalminer and Trade Unionist; he shared thousands of anecdotes and stories throughout my childhood. Many of these centred on his childhood living in poor tenement housing in Scotland, his journey by sea to Australia, the battles with his nine brothers, how his mother cared for ten boys alone while her hussband was in Australia establishing a house as a miner for two years. But he also spoke of his prowess on the soccer field, boxing for money during the Great Depression, WWII, the ‘evil of the mine owners’ and the great solidarity of the union movement, the pain of feeling responsible for the death of his little sister the last born of 11, who died at age 2, and marching off from his home pit in the brass band as a 16 year-old to take part in the infamous Rothbury riots of 1929. I loved these stories even after I had heard them over and over again.

My grandfather (on my mother’s side, Alexander Linton) was also of Scottish and English stock, and recited from memory the great poetry of Robbie Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, the literature of Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson, Sir Walter Scott, and slabs of the Bible (especially Psalms and Proverbs).

For most of my life I thought I’d had no literature and story, but later I was to realise that my world was filled with it. It was also filled with music. 1950s and 60s contemporary music was a big part of our household, with both parents accomplished musicians and singers. Most of the music I heard was in the form of ballads, especially Scottish, Irish and Italian ballads – 'Danny Boy', 'Pedro the Fisherman', 'Ave Maria', 'Hang Down you head Tom Dooley', 'Ciribiribin'. This was yet more rich language and poetry.

The power of storytelling

My conclusion in middle age was that my language and literacy had been enriched by my experience not of literature, in book form, but by oral storytelling and poetry, music and the anecdotes and stories shared with me by my family. My experience is not a singular one, in fact all cultures had oral storytelling before books, and some cultures still rely on oral traditions more than books.

And here’s the main point of this third and final post on the power of literature, and in a sense, it is more a point about narrative than simply literature and books. For while it is possible to learn to read without a rich tradition of books and literature, I would argue that it isn’t possible without a foundation of narrative and story. Why? I’ll let Harold Rosen answer this question:

Narratives in all their diversity and multiplicity make up the fabric of our lives; they are constitutive moments in the formation of our identities and our sense of community affiliation.

We spend most of our lives telling each other stories. Yes, I know that there are countless language genres with their own structure, purpose, modalities and so on, but we build our relationships with one another, we share our humanity through the stories we tell about our own lives and those that we have heard from others.

That’s what my father and grandfather were doing when I was a kid, that’s what you do in those deep and meaningful conversations late at night with that special person. Our stories of people, places, events, trials, successes, failures, fears, loves, hates, passions, prejudices and so on, are not simply personal memories, once told they become part of a collective memory in which something is shared between father and son, lovers, enemies and friends. Even public narratives become part of us and can change us - Martin Luther King Jr's 'I have a dream' speech, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's sorry speech, President Obama’s campaign launch, Mandela’s letters from prison and eventually his speeches of reconciliation and many other significant orations by great men and women throughout the centuries.

Cherishing literature and story

Literature is the most developed and permanent form of story telling; it lasts and is passed from generation to generation. Great texts have the power to change our lives, to give direction to us and to offer meaning and purpose. Individual texts become part of our textual histories as they pass on timeless knowledge and truth, values and wisdom. Much of the richness of story that has been communicated through the ages, has been distilled into great books. To sum up this series of three posts in just a few words:

Literature has great power to teach, enrich and transform us.

We must value literature and storytelling. In this age of mass and instant communication, where writing and reading more than 160 characters is a challenge for some, we must protect literature and share it with our children and with all future generations of children.

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