The Fortunes of Reading Literature

By Ronja Iding

In Jayne Anne Philip’s own words, “Literature can teach us how to live before we live, and how to die before we die.” Philip’s point is that literature teaches us how to live without having to live and how to die without having to die. Through literature we can live many lives and experience many different life standards. We are even able to skip the negative parts of each life and focus on the good parts, but if we do not skip the negative parts, we are able to learn. We can adapt, and we are able to see different perspectives, which can lead to becoming a better person in reality – or a worse one.

I agree that literature is able to teach us these things, but in order to learn them we as the readers have to put in our fair share of listening and understanding. Keeping an open mind while reading is the most important thing a reader must do. Because if we did not keep an open mind, we would not be able to learn or understand the story that is being told.

An example of where I had to keep an open mind to learn is Cobra Kai. The thought of Johnny Lawrence becoming the main character, and that resulting in me seeing life through his eyes was not appealing to me at first. Being a fan of The Karate Kid as a child resulted in me developing a strong dislike for Johnny Lawrence. In The Karate Kid Johnny was the bad guy, the bully, the guy who thought too highly of himself and treated everybody else horribly. In Cobra Kai he still has that guy inside of him, but as always, the more you watch the more you understand why he became this person. The backstory always explains why a character became the way he is, but it does not justify it. Nonetheless, I started liking Johnny the more I got to know him. At this point, waiting for season 4, I am fond of him, and I respect him as a person.

I respect him because he is a person who follows what they say. He only speaks when he feels strongly about something and then he acts. Johnny is a karate teacher; in the show he provides the lives of his students with meaning. He turns their lives, and along with them his own life around. But most importantly, Johnny Lawrence has a heart of gold; he cares about other people. However, I am not so sure if he cares about himself – he has not been taught to do so.

Many characters in literature are complex and almost every character shows us a reason to accept them. Everybody who has ever read a piece of literature or watched a movie knows how true this statement is. Literature is made for us to sink into other perspectives, live through events along with characters we love or hate and see the world through their eyes. In a way we become part of the story and get attached to certain characters. We live through other characters, and we die through them, too, or we see someone die through their eyes. Literature makes it possible for us to experience someone else’s heartbreak without having to feel broken ourselves.

 By reading a book we enter another world with characters that do not exist in our world, no matter how much we want them to. They are not real. But they can feel very real while reading the book. We can pretend that they are real during the process of reading. We get to meet them and grow fond of them or form some kind of bond. This results in us feeling what they feel, but in a mild way. It does not hurt us the way it hurts them if something horrible happens.

 And then, of course, there is always the possibility of closing a book and escaping from the heartbreak that might be happening in there, even if it is just momentarily.

 In conclusion, literature teaches us about life and death in a way that we can cope with. Most of the things I learned about come from literature because I am only 19 years old. I have not experienced a lot myself yet. I tend to look for literature when I want to learn about things in a less brutal way. It is a perfect way to learn to accept life and death because they are real and sooner or later, we are all going to experience them.

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