Midnight falls on Montpelier, Vermont, deep in the gray of December. Somewhere in our quiet town a woman cannot sleep. She sits up in bed and turns on her reading lamp. She tries not to notice the empty space beside her. She reaches for the book on her nightstand and opens the cover. The book was her favorite novel as a young woman, and something drew her to it when the sleepless nights began. As her eyes move over the words, her face remains tight. Her mind is distracted, as it works hard to pinpoint the moment that love turned into its opposite. She is looking at the words but not reading, not really. Then, unexpectedly, a single phrase pierces the loud mess in her skull. The next sentence holds her attention. And the next. Soon she turns the page. The tightness around her mouth and across her forehead eases. She finishes the chapter and begins another, and her face changes again. It morphs into something unexpected this time: a smile. A mysterious force, silent and internal, covers her like a blanket of peace.
Down the street, a neighbor sits alone in his living room. His children and wife are asleep upstairs. “I’ll be right up,” he had called out to his wife when she became too sleepy to read anymore. That was hours ago. The new novel by his favorite writer will not let go. He turns one page and then another, his mind gripped by a character who eludes him and appalls him and also delights him.
Many miles away, across the country, a young girl reads by the flicker of a tiny flashlight, even though her parents told her not to. If she gets caught, she’ll tell them that she couldn’t sleep, but the truth is that she has to know what happens next in the book that her grandmother gave her for her tenth birthday.
Across the ocean, on the other side of the world, it is morning. An old man sits alone in his kitchen with a cup of tea and a book. He is re-reading his old favorites, one masterpiece after another. As he reads, the novels read him, too. They reveal to him new parts of himself even at the age of eighty. His wife has been gone for several years. His children live far away, and the neighbors are dying faster than he ever imagined possible. The novels hold loneliness at bay. He takes a sip of tea and turns another page.
Anyone who has spent time in the company of fiction knows the wonders offered by an invented story and the characters that become close friends and stay with us for days or weeks or perhaps even many years. As you read this opening tale, did any of the characters intrigue you? Did they remind you of yourself, at one time or another? Did you hear anything that connected with the place inside of you that feels most authentically and intimately like you? If not, let us blame this writer for the failure.
Yet, if you did in fact feel something, if that short scene of four readers of different ages around the world touched something inside your mind, your heart, your spirit, then let us ponder these questions:
What is the value of reading literature?
How do the invented stories and the made-up characters of novels enrich us, teach us, delight us, and save us?
We start with the basics. The building blocks of novels are words. Language. The amazing human brain inside each of our skulls has given us the gift of language. Think of all that words enable us to do. Think of everything in your own life and in our human world that is built on language. The interconnected web of life in large part relies on words. The tool that we use most often to connect with one another in family and in friendship, at work and at school, in community and in service, is language. Writers uses words as painters use paint, as musicians use musical notes, as potters use clay. In the hands of a good writer, language comes alive and sings with precision and with beauty.
Listen to a few lines from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (please read this part aloud): “He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star.” For me, that is the creation of beauty out of mere words. Reading it makes me feel good. I see those vivid images of love. I hear the song of language. Our finest writers remind us that our words are a reflection of who we are. Literature models for us how to be impeccable with our words. It can inspire us to choose carefully how we speak and how we represent ourselves.
Listen to another example of beautiful writing from the contemporary writer Barbara Kingsolver, in her novel The Lacuna. Kingsolver uses a metaphor to describe something ordinary—a household of people thrown together by circumstances—and thereby turn it into something artful. She writes: “This household is like a pocketful of coins that jingled together for a time, but now have been slapped on a counter to pay a price. The pocket empties out, the coins venture back into the infinite circulations of currency, separate, invisible, and untraceable.”
The beauty of words is part of the art of literature, but novels of course offer us much more. Our best fiction explores the same questions that each of us thinks about in the quiet of our inner lives. I mean the biggies, the ultimate questions of our identity and our existence: Who am I, and what am I doing here? The lifelong process that we might call personal growth or our spiritual journey is the same material that novelists have been writing about from the beginning, from Giovanni Boccaccio in the 1350s to Miguel de Cervantes in 1605, from Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy in the nineteenth century, to F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920s and Barbara Kingsolver and J.K. Rowling today.
Novels invite us into a world whose purpose is to examine the same questions that we spend our lives pondering. Yet, something extraordinary happens as we read. We lose ourselves. We leave thoughts about ourselves behind when we enter a fictional world. We disappear into Jane Austen’s web of lovers or Fyodor Dostoevsky’s mad man walking the streets of St. Petersburg after killing an old woman with an ax. We begin to care whether Austen’s Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett are going to wind up together, and we begin to consider the motives of Dostoevsky’s murderer Raskolnikov in ways that challenge our own morals. This, I think, is the first stage of reading. This is when a book hooks us and begins to work its wonder of holding us captive to its story, the characters, and great writing.
The deeper we slip into the fictional world and the lives of make-believe people, the more we slip away from our own troubles and worries, the stress and strain of our lives, the sheer boredom—sometimes—of it all. This is the escape of fiction, and it can save us if only for a few hours from sadness, loneliness, grief, and a host of other human miseries. “To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all of the miseries of life.” Those are the words of the English writer Somerset Maugham—and a phenomenon that any reader has experienced.
Don’t we all need a refuge from time to time? In novels we find it in the story and also in the characters, those human-like beings that must be realistic for us to believe them and relate to them but who also are larger than life and sometimes even better than life. In the pages of novels, we can listen to and watch another human in ways that real life does not permit. The lens zooms in close, closer, and ultimately so close that we are occupying the space inside another human mind, another human spirit. And there we can find tremendous comfort, I think, a comfort that reassures us that we are not alone, we are not mad for thinking as we do, we are not the only ones to struggle with this or feel like that. Reading makes us feel less alone.
At the end of J.D. Salinger’s book Franny and Zooey, I wept because I don’t know anyone like Franny or Zooey, and I knew that I was going to miss them. Each time I read Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, I wish that Elizabeth Bennett lived next door. Oh, to be able to walk to her house and discuss life’s complications with her over a cup of tea. Last winter when I finally read Don Quixote for the first time, I was ready to mount the nearest horse and join the man of La Mancha on his wild adventures as a knight errant. Now that is what I call living life to its fullest. There are also the characters that we detest, and they make us come alive, too. For me, it’s the men that populate Philip Roth novels. Oh, those despicable creatures. Yet, as they incite my ire, I get closer to my own truths.
And that is precisely the next step. Even as we escape into novels and get caught up in the fun of rooting for the heroes and against the villains, something else happens, too. This is a classic two-sided coin. If escape is one side of the experience of reading, then the exact opposite—self-discovery—is the other. As novels invite us to enter an invented world and forget our own real life, they also nudge us to contemplate our convictions, our ideals, our life. In the presence of great writing, we cannot help but engage deeply and earnestly in a vital conversation with the writer about matters of utmost importance, the stuff of our spiritual lives, or in other words – truths.
Not long ago, I read Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein for the first time. I had a debt to pay the literary gods, you see, because this was the only book of my college career that I had been assigned to read but which I did not in fact read. At the age of eighteen, for my interdisciplinary freshman seminar called “Quests and Adventures,” I skimmed Frankenstein, just barely. I didn’t understand literature back then, and though I was a hard-working student and a reader throughout my childhood, I did not really know how to read. Reading is hard. It’s very hard, and I think we don’t talk about that and acknowledge it. To really read a work of literature we must be alone and concentrate, two simple practices that I fear are becoming harder and harder in our modern world. As we read, we must understand, and then interpret, and finally apply what we’ve learned to the world, to real life, to our own life. I couldn’t do that very well at the age of eighteen, and so I plowed ahead anyway, like a schemer and a cheat, and I wrote a paper on the theme of friendship in Frankenstein. I am ashamed to report that I got an A. For someone who worships at the altar of literature, that is blasphemy. That A had haunted me for more than twenty years, and so last fall, right around this time, I set out to exorcise the ghost of Frankenstein.
I could not have been more surprised or delighted. Mary Shelley’s book, published in 1818 when she was a mere twenty years old, gave me a double whammy of the sort that comes from the greatest of great novels. Frankenstein hit me in the mind and in the heart in a transformative way that landed the book on my list of all-time top-ten favorite novels. The story is about a scientist named Victor Frankenstein, who devotes years of study to his quest of creating a new being from dead body parts. When he succeeds, his excitement is cut short when he sees that he has created a monster that is enormous, grotesque, and terrifying. Shelley writes, “My candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?”
The monster escapes from Frankenstein’s laboratory and is free to explore life on his own. He discovers the joy of sunshine on his face, the beauty of the mountains and a bird’s song, and his desire to learn language and find friendship and love. Hidden in a shack beside a secluded cottage in the mountains, he secretly watches and listens to a family and comes to love them. More than anything, the monster wishes to become a part of the family and to be loved by them. Yet, when he is rejected on the sole basis of his shocking and frightful physical appearance, a horrifying series of events unfolds. He commits one murder after another, and he targets his creator’s family, the people whom Victor Frankenstein loves most. The monster says, “All, save I, were at rest or in enjoyment: I, the arch fiend, bore a hell within me; and, finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin.”
I was overcome with grief for the monster’s victims, for Victor Frankenstein’s suffering and loss, and also for the monster himself. I sympathized with him, and I understood him. I saw him as a minority, an outcast, someone who desperately wanted to connect with others, who recognized his own capacity for love, and who suffered so intensely from loneliness and despair that he chose to commit evil. I found myself thinking that Frankenstein’s monster was in desperate need of a community. In fact, I wanted to jump into the pages of the book and give him a hug – a very long hug. My compassion for him grew so deep that I found myself not only overlooking the murders he had committed but in fact forgiving him. As his despair grew, I rooted for him more intensely. And in the end, when he felt deep remorse and regret, I saw at last the sum total of my feelings: I loved him. I loved this monster in this world of fiction created nearly two hundred years ago. This was, to say the least, a bit unsettling. For days, I looked at the world differently. I re-examined important questions of the human condition. I faced truths that I had not ever found elsewhere. Frankenstein changed me.
And here’s the coolest part of all: If everyone were to sit down right now and read Frankenstein, we would have a shared experience, and at the same time each of us would experience something different, something uniquely our own. There would be a universal experience, and within that there would be many individual variations. The interpretations and the applications of literature—to the world, to real life, to each of our lives—would vary. There is a concept in literature that it is the reader, rather than the writer, who truly writes the novel. Novels allow us to think about parts of life and kinds of people that we otherwise might not consider. As a reader, I can get very close to experiences that as a person I have a huge distance from. This, I think, expands our capacity for empathy. It challenges our definitions of right and wrong, good and evil, in ways that open our minds and make us more compassionate. Literature, I believe, teaches us sympathy.
There is an old debate about whether reading makes us better human beings. Many people say no. As Jane Smiley has observed in her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, novels do not contain much information. That’s not the sort of learning they offer. What they do offer are truths—truths about what it means to be a human being, possible answers to the questions that we on our spiritual journeys spend our lives seeking. The person who I was before I read Frankenstein and after, before I read Don Quixote and after, before I read War and Peace and after, the person that I am when I open the cover of a great novel and who I am when I finish it are two different people. Literature holds a mirror up to us in ways that nothing else can. And it invites us to step through that mirror into another world as nothing else can. Does reading literature make us better? My answer is yes, and here is how I define “better:” better than we would be otherwise. The literature that I have read is stored inside my mind and imprinted on my heart. It has made me more me. That, I think, is worth something. And that is what is available to each and every one of us in the beautiful and endless world of literature.
NOTE: This essay, in slightly different form, was first written as a sermon called “The Spirituality of Literature: Why Read?" for the Unitarian Church of Montpelier (Vermont).