Thursday, March 31, 2011

We Want to be More than Ourselves

Here are some words of C.S. Lewis on why we read:

The nearest I have yet got to answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level—in other words, not to discount perspective—would be lunacy. We should then believe that the railway line really grew narrower as it receded into the distance. But we want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is “I have got out.” Or from another point of view, “I have got in”; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.
Later in the same work:
Literature enlarges our being by admitting us to experiences not our own. They may be beautiful, terrible, awe-inspiring, exhilarating, pathetic, comic, or merely piquant. Literature gives the entree to them all. Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom realize the enormous extension of our being that we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense, but he inhabits a tiny word. In it, we should be suffocated. My own eyes are not enough for me. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or bee. In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in a Greek poem, I see with a thousand eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do (emphasis added).
C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 137–141.
I have been thinking about the importance of literature in the lives of our children and in my own life especially. Why do I spend my time teaching students to become readers, thinkers, and creators in this ‘old school’ art of reading and writing? When we read we are able to feel what otherwise would not be felt from history or science or mathematics. We are able to put on the armor of knight or the wings of a butterfly. We can be a nonconforming high school student or a Lutheran Prince of Denmark.
The idea of a class that makes one read what one does not want to read is contrary to the idea of literature. So, how can I (as a middle school language arts teacher) humbly ask my students to forge past the expectations and the demands placed upon them by the state, and to read literature that makes them feel and experience. I have students that have found the joy of having a window to climb out of or to leap into, but the majority of them have pulled the drapes over the window.
May the passion that God has given me flow into the students that I rub shoulders with. May we drown the STANDARD COURSE OF STUDY with the passion, exuberance, reflection, expectation, and emotional tidal wave of students reading for pleasure.

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