A few weeks ago I was in a discussion about novels verses non-fiction. I’ve had many such conversations. Often when talking about literature or books people get stuck in a rut. They only like to read autobiographies or only like to read fantasy or romance novels, etc. These types of exchanges “haunt” me. I feel as though people who only read certain kinds of books or only “really like” certain genres are really missing out. Before I explain let me just say, I enjoy non-fiction books and autobiographies. I read anything and everything for fun. But, if I am honest, I have learned the best life lessons from fiction and classic literature of all genres.
Good literature can do many great things. Oliver DeMille, the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education and Freedom Shift, lists five reasons we should study great literature and classics.
1. The Classics Teach Us Human Nature.
Literature has given me a glimpse into basic human instincts. Learning through experience is good, but it is often better to learn from someone else’s experiences and build upon them. If we let them, the classics can teach us lessons without the pain of repeating certain mistakes ourselves.
I read Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev when I was in my teens. The relationship between Asher and his father taught me many things that I hope never to have to live through with my own family. I really had to think about religion and art and the place where we each have to make a decision in our lives about the two. I learned about faith and God. And I learned about duty and callings. Incidentally, I learned that I would probably not be like Asher. I would use my art to worship my faith. And I believe art and religion can coexist.
2. The Classics Bring Us Face-to-Face with Greatness.
Oliver DeMille says “The purpose of studying literature is to BECOME better.” We are inspired by greatness. Reading good novels and stories have changed me and helped me to set higher standards for myself.
I recently read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I honestly wished I had read this book sooner. (Thank you, Amy, for encouraging me to read this classic that I will re-read often for years to come!) Jane Eyre is such a role model for girls. She is strong and virtuous. She has to choose between difficult choices and still manages to keep her integrity intact. I hope I can emulate this great, FICTIONAL woman. And I hope my daughters also develop similar characteristics.
3. The Classics Take Us to the Frontier to be Conquered.
Human beings need a frontier in order to progress. And today, we have only one frontier left: the frontier within. Our challenges define us. And fiction books deal with real life questions: joy, pain, fear, love, hate, courage, anger, death, faith and others.
There have been many novels which have helped me to “conquer” my most challenging struggles. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is one book series that helped me to deal with death, love, courage and faith. Dumbledore and Doby’s deaths helped me with death’s grieving process. I was able to cry and be angry and yet still find the faith I need to finish the novels. When my grandfather died a few years later, I was able to use what I had learned about grief from Dumbledore with his passing.
4. The Classics Force Us to Think.
“First, we are caused to think about the characters in the story, then about ourselves, then about people we know and finally about humanity in general.” – Oliver DeMille. Reading great literature makes us struggle, search, ponder, seek, analyze, discover, decide and reconsider.
Last week I finished rereading Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card with my daughters. (I have read this book over ten times.) This time I found new insight that I had never considered in my prior readings. As I read I realized that Ender had a “Thomas Jefferson education.” He was taught by reading and studying classic battles. He learned from great models. But most of all he learned because he CHOSE to educate himself. Each time I read this classic sci-fi novel I have found new insight and great lessons. They are there. We just need to open our minds, question and look for truths.
5. The Classics Connect Us to Stories.
Each culture is different because it has different shared stories. Different stories define each family, religion, each nation. Can you imagine the Jews without the stories of Moses or the Holocaust? Or Americans without stories of Paul Revere, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln? In addition to cultural, national and family stories we also have individual stories. Our personal set of stories help us shape our lives.
My religious stories are the stories from the Book of Mormon. My family stories include The Walking Man by Gary McCallister, The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, and Fablehaven by Brandon Mull. My personal stories are too many to mention (some fiction and non-fiction).
I’m glad I love to read! I’m glad my father loves to read and instilled that love in all of my family! I’m glad my daughters enjoy reading! I hope they never put themselves in one category and say, “I only like to read non-fiction because it is real.” Or “I only read fantasy because it is fun.” I believe there is great literature from all kinds of novels and books. There are lessons to learn from great classics. We just need to be able to question and put in the effort to find truth whether it comes in the form of a mystery, a fairy tale or scripture.