Ideas I Like

Literature and Freedom Does literature enhance freedom? Peter Bieri, the pen name of Pascal Mercier whose philosophical novel, Night Train to Lisbon, (among my favorites) has given considerable thought to this question. His reasoning is original and cogent.

“The overall idea: Freedom is the ability to shape one’s will according to one’s judgement about the desirable life. This ability presupposes a profound understanding of oneself: of one’s beliefs, memories, wishes, emotions. A crucial step in obtaining this understanding is knowledge of one’s imagination. Literature is one important source of such knowledge, both in the mode of reading and in the mode of writing. Therefore, literature, by acquainting us with our imagination, enhances our self-understanding and, through it, our freedom.”

The Reader’s Experience
In most critical discussions of literature, the experience of the reader is virtually ignored, as literary scholars tend to dwell on the meaning of the text from various theoretical or cultural frameworks. Instead, in my own reflections on literature I have been trying to focus on the experience of the reader, how literature enters their life, and possibly changes them. This view is rarely heard in academia. David Miall of the University of Alberta is an exception. In Literary Reading he wrote:

“I find it odd that almost none of the theorists in the debate about the fate of literature have considered examining the experiences of actual readers; several have remarked that such experiences are too idiosyncratic to be worth considering. But is that really so? " And later he asks, "What are readers doing when they read a literary text?"

In his blog, Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp discusses one of the ways literature takes us away from ourself (for a change) after chancing upon a student reading one of the Harry Potter novels during recess one day.

“An Asian girl sat on a wall by the playground equipment in what I recognized as a reader’s reverie. In her lap was a fat volume I knew from thirty paces – the fourth Harry Potter. My three sons have read them all, often more than once, and have watched the movies repeatedly. The fourth-grader was on her third pass through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I sensed her irritation at the interruption -- recess is short and returning to class gets in the way of the important thing, and here’s yet another distraction – but she was polite and articulate: “When I read them it’s like I’m really there. I forget about everything else.

Every dedicated reader knows – or remembers – the sensation of self-forgetting triggered by a book. When the girl realized I knew something about books, if not Harry Potter, and that I was not condescending to her as grownups do, she asked: “Do you know how I can write a letter to J.K. Rowling? Does she have e-mail? Do you think she’ll write back?” I suggested she write care of Rowling’s publisher and showed her in the book where she could find the address.”