The Power of Literature: 4 Pieces of Wisdom

by Lauren McNeese

There are two metaphors that I think of every time that I enter an English class; they involve The Odyssey, and “Top Chef.” First and foremost, entering an English course is incredibly exciting for me. I vow to myself that I will read every work diligently, multiple times if I must. (I read acts of Hamlet four times, I just wasn’t getting it-- I didn’t give up, though). In The Odyssey, Odysseus is on a journey, a long journey, a journey to go home. We are on a journey, a long and difficult journey, a journey that will bring us home. I believe that reading brings us home. I believe that an English class is more like an odyssey than we realize. It is beautiful, though difficult at times. My ancient and medieval history teacher used to always say “beautiful things are difficult” in Greek. I believe this to be true. Sometimes I really struggled in AP Literature; however, I always gave it my all and threw myself into the class wholeheartedly. Sometimes I had a C in the class. I still believe that those Cs were beautiful, though it took me a long time to get to that place. This semester is one that I will cherish for the rest of my life in terms of the English classes that I have had the opportunity to be a part of. 

Furthermore, I appreciate a metaphor that my AP Literature teacher commonly uses to convey his student’s experience of his class. He says that he is like a chef, preparing fine meals for his students. He is the one who cultivates the curriculum, he is responsible for what his students are reading and taking in for his class, and we are the ones who are enjoying the meal, ingesting and critiquing it for what it is. Through this year I have embarked on a journey to seek greater knowledge and truth of the world in which I live and my place in it. The lessons that I will take from my English classes and into the rest of my life are invaluable. Here are a few of them. 

While many books may be comforting, not all are and some may be better to avoid when you are particularly fragile. The Fishermen was a hard book for me to read, not because of the suicide necessarily, but more because of the mother’s slow descent into madness. So, one way that I have matured as a reader is that before, I was more like, I like to read because it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. One book that we read this semester that did in fact do that was The Little White Horse, a children’s book that laid the foundation for the rest of the semester. But, this semester I read things that unsettled me and made me uncomfortable, yet I found that good things may still be found within those book covers as well. 

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Discernment is important. Hannah Anderson’s All That’s Good was key in changing the way that I think about what I read and why it is or is not good and what it means for literature to be good. One belief that I held prior to this class, but further developed throughout the semester was that just because something is dark does not mean that it is bad literature or that we should not engage with it. Flannery O’Connor says, “Truth does not change based on our ability to stomach it.” I wholeheartedly agree. An example of this was the short story we read by Joyce Carol Oates, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” I understand that we needed the backstory of the short story, but I wish that we didn’t because it made me incredibly paranoid and also really sad about this world that we live in. It was based on a true story of a man who raped and subsequently murdered teenage girls. This is ugly and disgusting, but the literature about it is good because it is true and the pursuit of truth is always good. 

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Books have the power to make statements about life that are so powerful because they present us with hard truths about how short our lives are and how precious the mundane moments are. In my AP Literature class this semester, we focused on books about life, about the preciousness of time, whether or not a life can be wasted, and whether or not a life can be redeemed. Two books that aided this discussion were Our Town, by Thornton Wilder and The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy. Everyone in my AP Literature class was emotional at the end of Our Town, because books impact us so much that we are able to take their lessons to heart and apply them to our lives. For me, The Death of Ivan Ilych was more emotional because it is about a man who has wasted his life but who redeems it as he is dying. It was tragic but beautiful. Through these works of literature I grew in my understanding of the life that we are called to live as believers and how to do this well. 

All people engage with a search for the meaning of life. One of my new favorite books of all time is The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. It was so beautifully written and I loved the messages presented through it. I grew attached to the characters and I related to them. Speaking of Hemingway, I also read This Side of Paradise, by his buddy F. Scott Fitzgerald. Both books made statements about the meaning of life. 

Through these books I have found greater truth about the world in which I live and my place in it. I have learned about the preciousness of life and how to live a life of meaning. I have learned about other cultures and other beliefs and I have engaged with works that deal with the ugly things in life. They have all offered me something and have been well worth the time I spent pouring into them. 

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