When I was an undergraduate taking freshman composition, my professor continually marked certain phrases I used as clichés. This frustrated me because although she knew that the phrases were over used, they seem novel to me. I didn’t have much experience with language at the time. I didn’t begin reading (any more than was absolutely required–and seldom even that much) until I was in my late twenties and in a job that was over my head: Mr. C- in freshman comp was now teaching writing to international students at a graduate school.
And you know what I discovered? You can actually learn stuff reading. I know most people figure this out sooner than I did. And it might have been helpful to know this, say beginning in junior high school; but I didn’t. I guess I’m just a really late bloomer.
After a few years in nonfiction, mostly books on writing, with forays into theology and patristics; I took a stab at fiction. Actually, I was forced to do it. I was on the “leadership council” of a Protestant church, the same church community that eventually became Orthodox. Actually it was in the early nineties, just a few years before we became Orthodox. The Council was on retreat and I was sharing my recent readings in John of the Cross and Bernard of Clairvaux. I was troubled by my readings because I knew there was much more to them than I was getting out of them. The brothers observed my frustration and put a discipline on me. I was not to read any theology or similar literature until I had completed one long novel–they suggested I begin with The Lord Of The Rings, prefaced, of course, by The Hobbit.
I didn’t get much out of it. It was a nice story, but I didn’t know how to read fiction. I kept waiting for the significant information to be presented. Nevertheless, this kickstarted my move into fiction. I read Shakespeare, and since I was homeschooling my girls, they read some too. I began to get it, get how to read and learn about life from fiction. Dickens was next, a project that took me about ten years. I would have been quicker but I kept getting sidetracked by C.S. Lewis, Melville, Cooper, Chesterton, Orwell, Steinbeck and others. Some I liked, some I quit after a few chapters, some I forced myself through even though I didn’t like it much, but I felt that somehow it was good for me. About the time I began to double back on my Dickens favourites, I also began reading Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Hardy, Elliot, the Brontes and even three of Austin’s novels (Emma is my favourite so far). I’ve been stuck in the nineteenth century. It’s a rather nice place to be stuck.
I have to say that much of how I understand what a healthy human being is and what the various human sicknesses look like has come from my reading of literature. Or more precisely, learning to pay attention to fictional characters has gone a long way in helping me pay attention to myself and those around me.
This should come as no surprise to those of you who have been able to listen a little to the lectures by Fr. John Behr that I recommended last time. Fr. John points out that many of the Fathers of the Church recommended the study of the pagan writers as a preparation for theological learning.
While it is certainly true that pagan writers are, well, pagan, and one must be discerning in one’s reading and interpretation; nevertheless, and this is the important point, pagan writers are human. And if indeed the writer–pagan, Buddhist, atheist, or otherwise–is attempting to say something true, something real about human experience, then there is a good chance that something true and real about human experience is said. Sure, what is true and real will be packed in a load of delusion and falsehood; but since when has that not been the case with almost all human experience? The Pearl of Great Price is hidden in a field of dirt.
Sometime in my early twenties after going through some particularly tough times it dawned on me in prayer that much of what it means to grow spiritually is linked to just plain growing up: taking responsibility, caring for the weak, doing what needs to be done just because it needs to be done. And in as much as Jesus is our prototype, perfect God and perfect man, then becoming a normal, healthy human being is a big part of what it takes to be like Jesus. I think good literature can help us with this part.