Literature that Changes You

Of the various man-made forms of beauty, it has always been literature that has captured my heart. Looking back to when I first fell in love with reading, it was the stories of CS Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s The Hobbit that opened the door into experiencing reality through the imagination. The different worlds, characters, and adventures, although I didn’t realize it at the time, seemed to point to something beyond. However, it wasn’t until sophomore English class, in reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, that I began to more fully appreciate what an art form literature could be. A cautionary tale of the 1920’s “lost generation” that is just as relevant today as when it was published in 1926. I still remember being deeply moved at the ending of the story. The cynicism and hopelessness of the characters filled me with a sadness that made me want to shout at them, there is more to life than this! You can sense Hemingway’s self-condemnation of the lifestyle he lived. It was the way he told the story, though, that was also impressive. So much of the meaning of the novel had to be gleaned from subtle inferences and little nuances, which our teacher helped us understand.

Later in seminary, I began reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It took me two years, but it was worth it! To this day, few other books have been as impactful and life changing as this one. Considered one of the greatest literary achievements, it is a deeply philosophical and theological novel that explores human nature in all its beauty and ugliness: “The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

Good literature is such a powerful instrument to portraying the world as it is and what it can be. It can change hearts, bring hope and meaning, and remind us of the true story we belong to. Bad literature dehumanizes and degrades (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and George R.R. Martin’s The Games of Thrones series come to mind). It often imitates the real thing and can appear superficially beautiful, but is revealed as empty and hopeless. Now that is not to say we should read only high works of literature, or that we should not enjoy a fun or easy summer novel. Something to consider for us all though, am I allowing space to experience the good, true, and beautiful in what I read? Am I making the effort to lift my heart, mind, and soul to higher things? I would like to close with a quote from a contemporary author, Michael O’Brien (whose novel The Island of the World, is a masterpiece of truly Catholic storytelling).

“The arts can come to our rescue, if they are true and beautiful and faithful to the moral order of the universe. In presenting human dramas in all their variety, a novelist, for example, can help reveal the actions of divine providence (very present but usually mysterious and hidden from our eyes). In this way a reader or a person listening to a symphony or gazing at a good painting can come to know that he is more than he thinks he is…A true work of art helps him apprehend, by some interior sense, that while Man is damaged he is not destroyed; he is beautiful and beloved by his Father Creator.” – Michael O’Brien

Excerpt from Island of the World:

“In this place where we first appeared, we did not doubt that love is the path of ascent. We did not think of it, as we did not think of the air we breathed. In time our flesh received instruction as we grew, and our hearts and our souls. We came to know that love is the soul of the world, though its body bleeds, and we must learn to bleed with it. Love is also the seed and milk and the fruit of the world, though we can partake of it in greed or reverence…We are born, we eat, and learn, and die. We leave a tracery of messages in the lives of others, a little shifting of the soil, a stone moved from here to there, a word uttered, a song, a poem left behind. I was here, each of these declare. I was here.”