Recently, a friend of mine remarked at the amount of books that I have lined up on the shelf above my desk. Piles stacked every-which-way find themselves heaped on top of the shelf, all over the desk, and sometimes, even the floor. Even more, books are packed into the bookshelf sitting on the other side of the room. “Twenty-three,” I told her. “I’m reading twenty-three books this semester.”
She looked at me, her mouth agape in shock, and asked, “Don’t you get sick of it?”
“Sick of what?”
“I don’t know. I guess that I already know how nouns and verbs work, and I’m a science major.”
I looked at my friend and lovingly corrected her. “That’s not what studying literature is about.”
Don’t you get sick of it? Her question reminded me of how I felt about a year ago. I was beginning the second semester of my Junior year and my fourth full semester as an English major. I knew that I wanted to teach, but I had still somehow failed to actually fall in love with literature. I enjoyed reading, and I had a long list of books that I liked or interested me, but I never understood exactly why I should spend the rest of my life reading and analyzing the “great works”. And in reality, I was getting “sick of it”, worrying that I wasn’t cut out for English and debating if it was too late to change my major. Uncertainty reigned over my life, and I felt directionless. Until I took a class that completely changed my perspective — a class on the writings of Tolkien and Lewis.
Throughout the course of the class, my wariness toward studying literature developed into an overwhelming passion as we discussed the truth and beauty cultivated within a book’s pages. Reading Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” and Lewis’ collection On Stories helped define what a story should be and the reasons why we all long for it, whether you’re an English major or not. For the first time in my academic career, I understood that literature was in fact not about what I thought or what I could get out of it, but what the author himself was trying to communicate to me. I understood that the author was telling me about the failures of humanity — that we make monumental mistakes and that we are beyond the point of saving ourselves. I understood that literature did not exist to interest me, but instead, it existed to change me, hopefully for the better, by pointing out the places in which I fall short. I understood that the study of literature was not about pointing out all the metaphors and allegories for the sake of only pointing them out, but that those elements are recognized in order to point back to the story’s message. I understood that the author includes such elements to make the point of his work so memorable and remarkable that it could do nothing else but to change us.
Why do we do it then? Why do we study something that has the ability to build us up and tear us right back down? That reminds us that it is “mea culpa” and that we are helpless in our condition? That tells us that we will continue to make stupid mistakes for the rest of our lives? Aristotle would say we do it for catharsis—to get out all the negative emotions so we don’t act upon them. The Romantics would say we do it to celebrate our creativity and expand our imagination. Postmodernists would say that there is no point at all.
In her book On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior writes about the virtues evident in literature. She says that these virtues have the ability, if we allow them, to mold us into more virtuous people. Her argument relies on Aristotle’s idea that reading literature is cathartic, claiming that we can live vicariously through a character’s right or wrong action and shape our worldview through the consequences of the character’s action. Unfortunately, most of the time, we learn through the character’s mistakes not by his accomplishments. As Prior writes, “Literature is birthed from our fallenness: without the fall, there would be no story.” But again, why would we want to read literature that perpetually reminds us of our failures?
The short answer is this: when we read something that identifies our shortcomings, we have no choice but to look for the One who can forgive us of them and who will eventually make all things right again. This is evidenced by our feelings when we finish a story that doesn’t give us the satisfaction we desire. When a story ends with a society doomed or with the good man dead, we feel a deep discomfort and wish that the story had ended differently. We know that the story didn’t go the way that it was supposed to, and we find ourselves longing for something—something unattainable from the story within our hands or even from within ourselves.
What we long for is satisfaction, or better yet, peace. And the belief that an ending of a story should bring peace only reflects the inward desire that our own story will as well. When we look for peace, we find that there is only one true source. And eventually, we begin to see eternity, an eternity of grace and love, because it is real, and it is a culmination of our hope. So to answer my friend, no, I will never get sick of it. I will never grow tired of being reminded that the peace and contentment and satisfaction that I long for are found in Jesus Christ. I will never grow tired of the love and grace He gives when I recognize and repent for the frailty of my humanity. And I will forever be thankful for a God who graces us with the enjoyment of stories, giving us the slightest glimpse of the eternity that awaits us.