Forgive me for geeking out a little bit here. I studied English and education in college, and I used to be an English teacher, so it’s safe to say that I like reading. In particular, I like stories.
For my writing here at ATX Catholic and for much of my pleasure reading, I cover a lot of religion, personal finance, and productivity. My heart still lies in the pages of a good story, though. I firmly believe that literature teaches us what it means to be human; thus, when we read stories, we turn into better people.
You can imagine my delight to come across the speech “Reading Literature to Reveal Reality,” by Laura M. Berquist, in which she combines some of my favorite things: Jesus, stories, and learning. It’s a long one, so allow me to share some of how her paradigm fits so well with the one I’ve developed over years of education, reading, and life.
Berquist begins by identifying the Dashwood sisters of Sense and Sensibility as the “positive example” and “negative example” of literature. Simply by reading the story, “the reader can achieve the knowledge he gains without the painful and destructive consequences that often come with lived experience.”
Oh, yes. This is where the earliest of childhood stories come into play. Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t listen to the admonition to stay on the path and not talk to strangers, so she winds up eaten by the wolf. Countless patriarchs in Scripture are given instructions straight from the mouth of God, but they fail to live up to God’s plans and must face the consequences. Katniss Everdeen seems to finally find a political authority she can trust only to be further manipulated and betrayed. We learn truths about life from what we read. Reading about those truths is much faster and neater than having to actually live them yourself—and suffer the consequences.
Berquist goes on to quote Michael Novak’s thoughts on parroting versus demonstrating true understanding:
To act as a Christian is not only to perform certain abstract duties to the letter of the law, but also to live according to the spirit and temper of the law. In some ways, it is more illuminating to speak of imitating Christ than of merely obeying him. We are all skillful at the little child’s trick of performing exactly what the parent tells her, while the same time mocking the task.
I saw examples of this even before I became a teacher. One of the reasons English class was always my favorite was that it was in English class where “getting the right answer” wasn’t the goal. Memorizing formulas didn’t help much. Scoring well on tests required more than just remembering what you’d been told.
Perhaps the best lesson: following the rules was how you learned how, when, and whether to break the rules. Think about it: when is the last time you actually wrote a five-paragraph essay? Probably not recently. But without that knowledge, how could you ever manage a professional memo? To do exactly what we are told without thinking or question is to behave like the mocking little child in Novak’s example. That’s not learning. To learn is to engage with the source so deeply that the truth rises to the surface and is imprinted on the heart. Everything else is just rote.
Berquist says that good stories “lay out the truth, and the steps to arrive at that truth, in the right order, so that the student can follow his teacher step-by-step to the truth which he then sees by the light of his own mind.” That’s what good pedagogy does.
I am no longer in the classroom, but I find opportunities to teach all the time. Among my coworkers, I usually offer the option of learning or doing. They won’t learn if I just do it for them, but the “doing” version will be faster. If they want to learn, I will walk them through it, giving some commentary along the way. I’ll admit to the parts that I myself don’t understand, check along the way to see if they’re catching on, and watch them try it for themselves. We might be standing in a shiny office building, but it feels just like I’m back in school. The process of moving methodically towards the truth is just as applicable to students and teachers, parents and children, manager and assistant, as reader and book.
One of my least favorite arguments in favor of stories where cheaters prosper or good guys finish last is that it’s “just reality.” Reality is reality. I have plenty of reality in my actual life. In a book, I want the truth. A story, Berquist explains, “must mirror the ultimate reality, not the short term, shortsighted, inversion of the moral order…. The consequences of bad actions have to be shown in an intelligible manner.” If the hero doesn’t get the girl, he needs to get the glory. The cheaters don’t have to die, but they can’t be just fine and dandy. That’s not how the world is supposed to work, so that shouldn’t be how it works in literature. (Or TV shows. I was really upset by the ending of How I Met Your Mother.)
Similarly, I am never a fan of just laying out information without any opportunity for learning. Don’t give away the ending at the beginning. Let me think about it. Berquist says, “It’s good for the students to be reading and thinking, ‘What’s going on?’, ‘How is this going to work out?’, ‘What is the relationship, anyway?’ They exercise wonder, they learn to wait for results, they draw inferences, and they develop the habits for all of those things.” That’s how we watch good movies. Why shouldn’t it be how we read good books?
Reading stories is never a waste of time. As any Christian knows, Jesus taught his disciples using parables. We learn about Jesus primarily through the stories of his life and the life stories of other disciples. If you haven’t read a book in a while, today is a great time to start. Let it lead you toward true understanding, enliven your humanity, shape your reality, and teach you what it means to be human.