Saturday, November 3, 2012

What's the Use of Reading?

        It usually hits you around grade 10. You're sitting in English class listening to one of your peers struggle to read a speech from Macbeth when ask yourself “Why do I care about any of this?” In the golden days of grade school, story time was one of the highlights of class (remember The Hobbit?). But now, some practical gland has kicked in, and you seriously suspect that ‘high art’ might be a big waste of your time.

        In spite of (or perhaps because of) receiving two literature degrees myself, I continued in such a mindset until recently. I’m happy to say that, today, I have a maturing perspective on literature, and I’m much indebted to a great Canadian scholar for bringing me to this point. Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was a professor at the University of Toronto, and to this day he is considered one of the most important authorities on literature. In my tour of all things Canadian, I picked up his book “The Educated Imagination.” I read much and understood little, so I’m hoping that this entry will help me to process the main ideas.

        I want to tentatively suggest that there are two main concepts in Frye’s book. First, we use our imaginations way more than we give credit. We live in two worlds: the day-to-day world of ordinary experience, and the world of potential. In the first world, we use the ordinary language of practical sense. We go to the bank, buy groceries, and interact with coworkers. In the second world, we speak the language of imagination. Not everyone is a poet, but most of us can identify with this thought: “I see the world as it is, and I can imagine things differently.” When artists write, the imagination either looks up to a world better than our own (think of the happy endings in Cinderella and Pride and Prejudice), or it looks down to a world worse than our own (think of Resident Evil and Hamlet). In Frye’s words, “Literature gives us an experience that stretches us vertically to the heights and depths of what the human mind can conceive” (61).

        So the first point is that all of us use our imagination all the time, and artists have the gift of crafting it into words. The second point is that we need our imagination, not only because it’s part of what makes us human, but also because it strengthens the values we need to strive for something better than the world around us. Think of The Avengers when Ironman sacrificed his life to destroy the bomb. Think of the soldier’s compassion and bravery in Saving Private Ryan. Think of the beauty of friendship in The Lord of the Rings. And when you walked out of Avatar, you wanted to hug a tree, didn’t you?

Statue of Northrop Frye, Victoria College at UofT
        I think what Frye wants us to see is that literature puts us in touch with our humanity. It operates in the human world of love and death, joy and pity, bravery and jealousy. When we read great works of literature, we can see part of who we are, and we look beyond ourselves into other possibilities of human experience. Among other virtues, reading widely and deeply must lead to tolerance – a great Canadian value if ever there was one.

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