I believe in the power of literature. When I announced that upon completing my undergraduate education, I would be heading straight to graduate school to study literature, I got a lot of weird looks. I had the opportunity to get a good, full-time job, so people couldn’t understand why I was instead choosing to stay in school and study stories. “They’re not even true,” people said to me. What those people didn’t realize is that reading literature truly makes me a better person.
Many people who do appreciate literature praise it for its universality, claiming that we can all relate to it in some way – regardless of the characters or subject matter. But my love of literature stems from a different angle. I spend my time studying and teaching these “stories” because they are windows into other worlds, worlds that are completely foreign to me. They allow me to experience situations and feelings that I otherwise never would. And while the stories themselves are not necessarily universal, within them I find lessons that are universally applicable.
The first piece of literature to give me this experience was Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, which I read for a class my sophomore year in college. It is a long, complicated novel about a vulnerable black man trying to survive amidst the racism of 1930’s Harlem. As a young white woman in the 21st century, I have little in common with the unnamed narrator of this book. I have never been publicly ridiculed and belittled, as he has. I have never witnessed a friend die after being needlessly shot by the police, as he has. And I do not feel invisible to the rest of the world, as he does. Yet reading Invisible Man gave me all of those experiences. And those experiences are as much a part of who I am as the experiences I have in “real life.”
And so when some racial slurs were written in the dormitories of my small-town college, it didn’t matter that the graffiti wasn’t directed at me. It didn’t matter that it “wasn’t my battle to fight.” Because since I had read Invisible Man, in a way, it was my battle. So I eagerly made protest signs and marched across campus in our school’s first rally against racism. Would I have participated before studying Ellison’s novel? I doubt it.
Reading Invisible Man taught me how much good literature can impact the way I look at the world. I may never personally face the problems of the narrator, and yet having an understanding of his struggle makes me better equipped to fight for justice on behalf of others. Reading literature constantly transports me into the lives of people I otherwise could never understand, and yet I am able to care about their circumstances on a deeper, more genuine level because now I feel it too. That is why I believe in literature: because it motivates me to show greater compassion for others. It motivates me to change the world.
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