Friday, July 14, 2006

What's a Literary Education For?

Ever since I finished reading Firmin, I've been thinking about this particular passage in it:

If there is one thing a literary education is good for it is to fill you with a sense of doom. There is nothing quite like a vivid imagination for sapping a person's courage. I read the diary of Anne Frank, I become Anne Frank. As for others, they could feel plenty of terror, cringe in corners, sweat with fear, but as soon as the danger had passed it was as if it had never happened, and they trotted cheerfully on.
What is a literary education (formal or informal) good for? Is it, as in the passage from Firmin, good for filling a person with a sense of doom? My imagination can certainly run wild to the worst in any given situation and sap my courage. Sure, books add fuel to the proverbial fire so my imagination has more horror to choose from than it might on come up with on its own. But I think even without a life of reading my imagination would be prone to such wild doom. Reading actually gives it a safe place to be wild in. But where there is doom, there is also hope. My imagination being an active beast, roams in the forest of doom and flies in the skies of hope as well. When I imagine the worst thing that can happen I immediately try and counter it with the best thing that can happen. Literature may be filled with tragedy but that is not the only thing to be found there. Yes, Anne Frank died, but she still had hope. She also revealed that even in the worst situation beauty is possible. Where else besides books does a person find so many different ideas from so many different people and so many different time periods? A literary education affects a person's life as the Firmin passage implies. Books have the habit of being more than words on a page. They allow readers to imagine different ways of being, different lives, new possibilities. Dorothy has written several times about 18th century readers and their worries about the effects of literature. Perhaps because reading has become a fringe activity in the 21st century we don't worry about it any longer (most of us anyway, those who want to ban books are a different story). And Litlove has written about ethical reading and whether we should read or teach books that have questionable ethics. There is no denying that when we read Anne Frank we become Anne Frank (or Humbert Humbert, or Jane Eyre or name your character/author). Books are dangerous, so is being alive. A reader can choose to focus on the doom or a reader can choose to see the bigger picture, to piece together from a myriad of imaginings a vision of what is possible. Call me a romantic, but that's what I think a literary education is good for.