The Common Good
May 2010

The Power of Story

by Katherine Paterson | May 2010

Reading may not change the world -- but it changes the reader, and that's a start.

The summer that I was 17 years old, I, who was born of missionary parents in China, was rooming with a friend whose parents were missionaries in Africa. Although our mothers had been friends long before we were born, Mary and I first met as summer employees at our denomination’s conference center when she came back to the States to go to college. World War II had driven my parents out of China, so I had lived, since the age of 8, in various places in the southern United States.

One night after the day of waitressing was over, Mary began to read aloud to me Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country. At first it was just the sound of Mary’s Africa-haunted voice caressing the beauty of Paton’s language that kept me wide awake and enthralled. But gradually, chapter by chapter, that beauty told me of the unspeakable oppression and tragedy that was South Africa’s story for too many years. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but suddenly one night the book came alive for me in a new way. I saw for the first time that the tragedy of South Africa was the tragedy of the American South, where I had been blind to the oppression from which I as a white person had been exempt. I began to cry, sob rather, for my own thoughtless sins and the sins of my people.
I look back on those tears as a turning point in my young life. I did not leave all my sins and fears on that wet pillow—I’m still not free from them—but I know my life began to change that night because of a book.
Caroline Gordon, in her book How to Read a Novel, speaks of the reading of a great book as a “conversion experience.” You are not the same person when you finish the last page, she says, that you were when you first sat down to read. I believe, from my own experience, that Gordon is right, and that is why I think reading is so important to our growth as wise and compassionate human beings.
To understand and have compassion for others, we must begin by knowing ourselves, and that is the first gift of a great novel. In Eudora Welty’s words, a novel “says what people are like. It doesn’t ... know how to describe what they are not like, and it would waste its time if it told us what we ought to be like, since we already know that, don’t we? But we may not know nearly so well what we are as when a novel of power reveals this to us. For the first time we may, as we read, see ourselves in our own situation, in some curious way reflected. By whatever way the novelist accomplishes it—there are many ways—truth is borne in on us in all its great weight and angelic lightness, and accepted as home truth.”
If we know ourselves and can love and respect ourselves, there is hope that we can reach out from ourselves to love and respect others.
This is a vision that is sadly lacking in our nation these days. We live in a society that seems to delight in division and derision. Each faction seems focused solely on its own agenda, and every faction sneers at those who dare to suggest that problems are complex, that perhaps there is no single solution—that we must listen and learn from each other—that we must consider our neighbor’s problem as our own problem. It is a truism that we have become a nation where the first question in the face of any issue is “What’s in it for me?” Few groups, and only the rare individual, seem intent to pursue what might be best for the common good.
I don’t think this lack of concern for the whole of society and the fact that many people aren’t reading literature these days are coincidental. Of course, we can be deeply affected by music or art. We can be moved to action by photographs and film. The outpouring of money for Haiti came when Americans saw the devastating scenes of the tragedy on television. But what happens to that compassion when the pictures disappear from the screen? The outpouring of money was wonderful and badly needed in those first days after the earthquake, but concern for Haiti is at risk of evaporating now that media attention has gone on to some other story. To truly understand the tragedy of that poorest of countries in our hemisphere, for our initial response to turn into ongoing concern that will make a difference, we need to go deeper. We need to read.
The Sunday after the earthquake, The New York Times ran excerpts from books by Haitian writers. I wasn’t even aware of these writers before. How can I know the Haitian people except as impoverished victims if I do not read what they say about themselves and their homeland? Justice is not a matter of handouts to those in need; it is a matter of aligning ourselves with those others, learning from them, respecting them, allowing ourselves to be changed, until they are no longer “others,” because their welfare and our welfare are one.
Not many of us can or will go to live and work in Haiti, but we can read, and through our reading come to know the Haitian people, learn how we as a nation have contributed to their difficulties, and discover how they might wish us to stand with them in their rebuilding.
I am a writer of fiction, so my bias shows. I love novels because in them you don’t only walk in other people’s shoes—you eavesdrop on their souls. But great works of nonfiction will also help us to grow as just and compassionate persons. With Haiti so much on my mind, I cannot fail to mention Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. I keep thinking of Farmer’s expression, “fighting the long defeat,” which is what the attempt to make a difference in Haiti amounts to, and though Farmer says, like any of us in the United States, he would like to be a winner, he has chosen to “make common cause with the loser.” “We want to be on the winning team,” Farmer tells Kidder, “but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.”
These words have made me take a deeper look at all the long struggles for justice in the world—William Wilberforce’s lifetime fight against the slave trade in England; the long campaign to end slavery in our own country and the many who suffered and died in the civil rights movement, which was the continuation of that long defeat; the struggle for voting rights for women; the ongoing striving for recognition and equal rights by those whose gender orientation is different from those of us in the mainstream. I could go on and on. Throughout human history, in every land, there have been those fighting the long defeat, those who will not turn their backs on the losers.
In many ways, this is the biblical struggle. We have to face it if we read the Bible: God has made “common cause with the losers.”
Jesus read the prophets, and they shaped how he grew “in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and people.” After his baptism he took his commission from the book of Isaiah that he was to preach good news to the poor, to release the captive, to set at liberty the oppressed. How did we go from this commission to believing that Jesus’ principal desire for his followers was to seek their own salvation from the world he died to save?
It is plain to me that not only the scriptures but many of the books I have read have shaped my own growth. I have to ask myself what this means for me as a writer of novels for the young. I believe strongly that there is a difference between story and sermon. When I am asked what message a book of mine is meant to convey, I answer that as the writer of the book, I know what I learned from writing it, but I don’t know what a reader will learn from reading it. I do not have the right, nor do I want the right, to dictate to any reader what he or she will take away from my book.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in speaking of Jesus’ narrative style, notes “how courteous it is, how respectful of the listener.” Story and image, she goes on to say, “do not come at the ear the same way advice and exhortation do—although they are, I believe, even more persuasive. Perhaps that is because they create a quiet space where one may lay down one’s defenses for a while. A story does not ask for decision. Instead, it asks for identification, which is how transformation begins.”
But how, in this noisy, plugged-in world, is there hope that a child might read a book that would provide that space—that opportunity for transformation? Recent studies declare that the average 8- to 18-year-old in America spends, each day, seven hours and 38 minutes connected to some electronic device. That does not leave many waking minutes for reading a book that just might transform their lives. So what are we to do? We’re not going to turn the clock back to my childhood, when the big threats to good reading were comic books and radio. We’re not going to snatch the electronic devices from their ears or their fists.
I don’t have the solution, but I do have a few suggestions.
First of all, we can show them that reading matters to us. We can let them see us reading. We can talk about books that we have read and ask them questions about issues that reading a book or an article has raised in our own minds. We can read aloud to and with them. Just the physical presence and the voice of a caring parent lets a child know that his or her parent believes that time spent reading and conversing with the child is more important than anything else on the parent’s busy agenda. If we read together and talk about what we read, we create a language and a shared experience that will help us discuss difficult topics in a safe way. It is sad to think that for some children their chief memory of their parent’s voice will be that of anger or demands. I am not naïve enough to believe that just reading together will save the world, but it just may be a start. Charity, we have long heard, begins at home. And so does justice.
Katherine Paterson is the author of more than 30 books for young readers. A two-time Newbery and National Book Award winner, she was recently named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Librarian of Congress. She is an elder in the First Presbyterian Church of Barre, Vermont.
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