By Billy Mitchell
I’ve always been under the impression that literature has the power to change the way we think. We always seem to hear people toss around the idea that some piece of art can change lives, yet I’ve always been skeptical of this notion. My way that I understood it, was that while experiencing a piece of art can work to change our lives, it works in conjunction with other factors; almost as a vehicle for the change as opposed to the motivator for change.
But as I think more on this subject, where does the power to change lives exist, if not in our own minds? If a piece of art causes us to think differently, isn’t it, in a sense, changing our life?
Let’s be clear with something. I’m not talking a massive, move-into-the-forest-and-live-off-the-land or suddenly take up an Eastern religion, change. I am not stating that reading a life-changing book means that we have to alter our lives in some large way. I’m talking about smaller—but pronounced—changes that take place in our minds; changes in how we see ourselves, how we see others, how we think about a certain situation or about morality or mortality. These characters’ interactions or these settings or situations that we read about slowly begin to take shape and create meaning within us, if we let them. While it may be too romantic or grandiose to come out and say: “This book changed my life,” it really isn’t that off-base. In fact, I don’t feel it is at all. Because small changes lead to big ones.
I had difficulty coming up with a concise list of books that have changed my life. Because, as I’ve been saying, these changes are not immense. They are small, sometimes miniscule shifts in consciousness. Without reflection, they can go unnoticed.
Without bringing my whole Kindle library into the picture, I’ve included two books that I can confidently say have changed the way I think. I’m sure I’m not alone in these choices.
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.
Some pretty important people have claimed Kerouac’s rambling, methamphetamine- driven scroll has changed their lives. I first read On the Road in high school and I didn’t quite know what to think of it. I knew what I was reading was good (whatever that means) but I didn’t quite understand the magnitude of what was being said.
In its most stripped-down sense, On the Road is a novel about a character in the 1950’s who travels across the country. The plot revolves around Sal Paradise, his group of friends and a number of different characters that he meets in his travels in the United States and then in his final journey to Mexico City. Holding the story together is Dean Moriarty, Sal’s delinquent friend, a representation of the Road itself.
What always catches me while reading this book is the definition of “The Road.” During my first read, I thought of it as exactly what it is: a literal representation of a road, a means in which you travel from point A to point B. But “The Road” that is so important to Sal—who, of course, is a fictional representation of Kerouac himself—is really a physical manifestation of a symbol. The Road, “The Holy Road,” is the ability for us to change our way. The Road gives us the freedom to go anywhere and do anything. The road is a means of living, as opposed to merely existing.
I’m not really in the business of recommending books, but if I was, you bet I’d be recommending this one. It may not get you to stand up and hitchhike across the country…but then again, it just might.
A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.
In the movie, “Silver Linings Playbook,” a manic Bradley Cooper has this great scene where he has just finished reading A Farewell to Arms, and proceeds to throw the paperback out the window.
“I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is, guys,” he screams at his parents, the father played by Robert Deniro. “Can’t somebody say, ‘Hey, let’s be positive. Let’s have a good ending to the story?’”
His mother then tells him that he owes them an apology for waking them up at four o’clock in the morning to talk about the ending of a book.
“Mom, I can’t apologize. I’m not gonna apologize for this. You know what I will do? I’ll apologize on behalf of Earnest Hemingway. Because that’s who’s to blame here.”
I won’t lie. I had a relatively similar reaction to the ending of this novel. Although it has been described as Hemingway’s “bleakest” novel in its depictions of the horrors of war and the soldiers that partake in it, the moments of brightness that come through are what create something memorable. That, as Hemingway says, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” This is the truly amazing sentiment.
I think this aspect of brightness in a novel that is mostly dark is best summed up in a dialogue between Frederic Henry, the protagonist and Catherine Barkley, his nurse and the woman he loves:
“And you’ll always love me, won’t you?”
“And the rain won’t make any difference?”
The following post is a followup to a 2010 blog found here, focusing on the efforts and success of the Speakout! adult literacy program.
By Vani Kannan
Those of us who have facilitated with the Colorado State University Community Literacy Center have seen the excitement when the Speakout! journals are published. It’s gratifying to pass them out to the workshop participants so they can see the fruits of their labor in print. However, we may not see what happens to the journals after they’re published. We know that they circulate around Fort Collins, the state, country, and indeed, the globe (CLC Director Tobi Jacobi brought journals with her to a conference in Prague this past year). But how are they being pedagogically employed in community literacy work?
Before I came to CSU, I volunteered as an adult literacy tutor at a public library in Brooklyn, NY. The students I worked with gravitated towards community literacy publications, particularly those that showcased the voices of language-learning writers. Students checked out the books from the library after our Saturday classes and brought them home to read during the week. They often came to class on Saturday having finished an entire collection of writing, and looking for something new.
Unfortunately, we ran out of such books quickly. It’s hard to find publications specifically tailored to adult literacy students—particularly language-learners and first-time writers. Students at the library responded well to texts with content that was relevant to their lives (e.g., essays on work and family), but written at an accessible reading level. The small grassroots press that had put out the collections we used at the library had gone out of business years earlier. Because of this, the library literacy center coordinators had to look to South African and Canadian publishers. (Of course, this meant that students learning English in the U.S. were learning from texts with non-U.S. spelling conventions!)
Adult literacy publishing is not a lucrative field, which is why it hasn’t taken off in the U.S. This is part of why the CLC’s work in publishing a grassroots journal is so important. As a facilitator in Brooklyn, I saw firsthand how vital it is for adult literacy students to recognize themselves in their readings. The adult voices in community literacy publications resonated and thus excited students about the act of reading. This excitement led them to read consistently at home, which improved their literacy levels tremendously in between our weekly classes.
When a friend started volunteering at a local literacy program in Philadelphia earlier this year, she called me and described her student—a woman who reads at a fourth-grade level and wants to try writing poetry for the first time. Unfortunately, the community literacy space where the volunteers and students meet does not have any texts available at all—let alone adult-specific texts—due to the fact that they operate out of a shared space where they cannot store materials. I sent her a copy of a recent Speakout! journal. She reports that her student was excited by the publication and took it home to read on her own the very same day. No doubt her literacy skills will benefit from reading the work of CLC workshop participants.
Vani Kannan is working on her MA in Rhetoric and Composition at Colorado State University. She volunteers with CSU’s Speakout! program and has been involved in community literacy work since 2008.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Set in Russia during the late 1800s during an economic and social crisis, Crime and Punishment examines the importance of morality in a climate where the law’s influences have faded. Raskolnikov, the protagonist, commits a horrific crime in the hopes of proving, to himself, his country’s laws are not applicable in a moral sense. After his heinous crime, Raskolnikov searches for redemption, which he eventually finds in Sonya, a young prostitute, who he confides in. It is a dark tale, but one with a powerful message: a man or woman cannot simply do whatever they wish without consequences. It is not a story without redemption, however. Even as Raskolnikov suffers, he finds eventual peace in confession and imprisonment.
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
On the surface, it may seem merely a cruel tale. However, Heart of Darkness flourishes in its understanding of man’s many faults while exploring the horrors that accompany leadership. Marlow begins an excursion in an African jungle where he is greeted by a cast of characters who have abandoned civility in favor of survival-based methods of living. Marlow must confront Kurtz, a man who manages a dock in the jungle and inexplicably governs the nearby tribe with a ruthless, Machiavellian style of leadership. While potentially problematic due to several racist themes, Heart of Darkness unabashedly delves into the horrific nature of a man’s will to survive in the harshest physical and emotional conditions, and leaves the reader with an unnerving question: What, precisely, would you have done in the heart of darkness?
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The most recently written novel on this list, The Road is nevertheless a captivating bridge between literature and the human condition. Set in the increasingly popular post-apocalyptic wasteland of the United States, the story follows the trials of the man and the boy, archetypal representations of a protective father and his meek, naive son. A unique study of the individual, where the man is realized as a survivor first and foremost, the man holds onto ideals of the world before, but does not utilize them. Unbeknownst to himself, the man has abandoned his country’s laws and has reverted to a more primal state. After realizing his change, the man, and the reader, try to cope with a lawless reality and an existence where the individual is truly responsible for his or her own actions.
By Joe Suhre
If you love literature, may I suggest you read the unabridged English translation of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo—yes, all 1500 pages; that is unless you want to skip the fifty plus pages describing, in oozing detail, the extensive French sewer system. The work is a tour de force of literature, reflecting the optimistic 19th Century view of redemption and the social struggle between justice and mercy.
Although the setting for Les Miserables is early 19th Century France, its message is timeless. It connects with the reader on a primal level; holds up a mirror and says, “This is who you are.” Change the time and the setting and the entire novel could take place in present-day Chicago.
The modern courtroom
In my criminal defense firm and in my interactions with prosecutors and judges, I encounter different variations of Javert, Jean Valjean, and Bishop Myriel every day. Victor Hugo’s characters seem alive and well.
I often represent Jean Valjean in court. I glance over at the prosecutor. I know him. He is Javert. I have a struggle on my hands. I look at the judge. She is a Bishop Myriel. Despite everything she has seen, she hasn’t lost faith in humanity. She wants to extend mercy but a congress of Javerts has tied her hands with mandatory sentences. The police arrested my client for allegedly “stealing a loaf of bread.” Now he could face ten years in prison without parole.
I like it when I know people who have read Les Miserables. I am able to describe the criminal justice system with just a few words. For instance, if you haven’t read Les Miserables, the above paragraph might seem like gibberish.
Part of the reason I think I see Javert so often in my work is in the designation, “Criminal Justice System.” Otherwise, it might be the “Criminal Mercy and Rehabilitation System.”
Javert against drinking and driving
One area of law that sometimes feels like it has been hijacked by Javert, is DUI law. From the initial stop to the automatic suspension of your license and arraignment, the stern face of Javert is there to greet you. Forget the fact that you are innocent. If you were arrested, you must be guilty.
I sometimes try to explain the typical DUI stop to people in a way that allows them to understand how questionable that procedure actually is. I find that Jean Valjean’s statement in defense of Champmathieu actually describes a DUI stop quite well.
“If I speak, I am condemned.
If I stay silent, I am damned!”
The crucible of humanity
I believe two places where humanity comes face to face with itself are the battlefield and in the courtroom. I haven’t been on a battlefield but I often find myself fighting a real war against people who are screaming justice, when mercy may be the solution.
The value of literature like Les Miserables is that it allows people to see the world differently. The criminal justice system, as I mentioned above, is a stage where humanity reveals its true self. I am front row center to the future of our race. Great literature, whether it was written 200 years ago or yesterday, will help shape that future; but only if we open a book or at least download it to our iPad and read it.
If we continue to allow our time to read great literature give way to video games and action movies, future generations may find themselves in a state of moral confusion akin to Javert looking down at the river Seine. If you don’t know what I mean by that, I know a good book you can read.
Victor Hugo himself stated,
“So long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Miserables cannot fail to be of use.”
Joe Suhre is a DUI attorney and principal of Suhre & Associates in Chicago, IL. He received a Criminal Justice degree from Xavier University and worked for 6 years as an auxiliary police officer. He later received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Cincinnati.
By Wendy Robertson
Recent government proposals to build large super-prisons, involving the closure of smaller local prisons like Northallerton, have chilled my heart. We all have opinions about prisons, depending on whether our views are about justice, rehabilitation, revenge, or restitution. For some people, prisons can seem hidden, secret places. But others have more personal experiences with them that may involve working in prison or having an acquaintance, friend or family member serving time inside.
Some people here in the North East will be in this position – having a sister, mother, daughter or niece serving a sentence behind bars. I know this because, over several years, for two days a week, I was Writer in Residence at HMP Low Newton just outside Durham City.
Inside this prison, I worked with women from County Durham, as well as women from all other parts of the country. Generally, they were ordinary people, women you might see any day in Bishop Auckland’s Newgate Street or Darlington’s Cornmill Shopping Centre.
In fact, I was once walking down Newgate Street when a young woman wheeling a baby in a buggy with her mother by her side swerved to a stop, saying, ‘Hi Wendy!’ She turned to her mother, saying ‘This is her I was telling you about from Low Newton – The Writing Woman.’
When I started being a ‘Writing Woman’, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But what happened to me in prison was the most life-enhancing, the most life changing experience. Afterwards, I was a different person, a different writer.
My job was to help these women of all ages to find their voice through private, written words on the page. In my time at HMP Low Newton we published two substantial collected editions of women’s writing – editions that traveled the length of the country. We wrote poems, prose fragments, short stories, plays. We had two open-to-the-public performances inside the prison, of the women’s work. We ran a parallel Litfest Inside at the time of the Durham Litfest. One woman had her story broadcast on the BBC. We had our own Orange Prize Project… and so on.
We had lots of purposeful fun and rueful laughter. The women learned that ‘writing down’ was making sense of things. Writing down can give order to what might be a chaotic life. In those small workshops, we all learned a lot about ourselves. Some stories, well-formed and written down, stayed in the woman’s possession and – by their own decision – never saw the light of day because the content was too raw.
These positive experiences were only possible because of my collaboration with teacher and Head of Learning and Skills, Avril Joy, (now a published writer herself), and the compassionate support of the then governor Mike Kirby, to whom my new novel Paulie’s Web is dedicated.
Paulie’s Web is a novel, not a documentary account. But its true nature was inspired by hundreds and hundreds of days working shoulder to shoulder with a whole range of women who defied the reductive stereotype one finds in some fiction and dramas – even in some documentaries where the researchers clearly find the story they’re already looking for.
My novel is not a case study. It is a work of fiction that tells a special truth in distilling the tragedies, comedies and ironies of five women’s lives, not just behind bars, but out in society. These women meet each other in the white van on their way to their first prison. In addition to Paulie – rebel, ex teacher and emerging writer – there is Queenie, the old bag lady who sees giants and angels, Maritza who has disguised her life-long pain with an ultra-conventional life, and serious drug addict, Lilah, who has been the apple of her mother’s eye. Then there is the tragic Christine – the one with the real scars, inside and out.
In Paulie’s Web, there is the light and shade that I found in prison. Likewise there is the laughter, comradeship and tears. There is the bullying and night-time fear. There is the learning and self–revelation.
The stories of these five women merge as Paulie – free now after six years – goes looking for the women she first met in the white prison van. The truth of their lives unravels as, one by one, she finds them and what they have made of their lives ‘on the out’.
On the surface, this novel might seem to be a straightforward read. But as you read, you might recognize, as I did, that there, but for the grace of God, go your mother, your daughter, your sister or your friend, who have fallen seriously foul of normal expectations of how a woman should be, what a woman should do.
The women I met and worked with took responsibility for what they had done and served their time. In their writing, they looked inside themselves, made some sense of their experience and looked to the future. If Paulie’s Web expresses a fraction of this truth and alters to any degree the public perception of women who end up in prison, then Paulie has done her job, and the novel will fulfil my hope that fiction will reach places where stereotyped facts will never reach.
After relishing and surviving academic life, Wendy Robertson became a full time writer twenty years ago. She has written twenty novels – including the recently released “Paulie’s Web” – both historical and contemporary, many short stories and continues to write occasional articles on issues close to her heart. She was writer in residence at HMP Low Newton, encouraging a wide range of women to raise their self esteem and realize their potential through original writing. She lives among the rolling hills of South Durham, in a Victorian house that has played a role in more than one of her novels. Her blog can be found here.
By Selena Marimba
For aspiring writers, the type of writing that receives a significant amount of attention is creative writing. The most obvious reason is that creativity is an art, not a science, so people who are naturally creative stand a better chance at being successful creative writers than those who think mechanically. Be aware that there’s a format and approach to any writing, but the genius is not in the approach but in the idea created. Follow these easy tips to achieve your goal of being a fantastic creative writer.
It’s said that good writers are good readers. When creative writers are being exposed to another writer’s creativity and seeing how those stories translate, they’re able to learn techniques and develop skills. Expose yourself to a variety of ideas by reading all genres and all types of stories. This includes fiction, non-fiction, and even poetry. The goal here is to expose yourself to as many different ideas as possible so you can find something you may not have thought of previously.
Scribble and Jot
Write down (or record) your thoughts and ideas in a written or audio journal to go back and review later. When you get into this habit, you’ll find that there are things that don’t make sense when you first write them down but will fit together later when you are connecting the dots.
Become A Wordsmith
A wordsmith is simply someone who knows how to use words, either in speaking or writing, though generally the context is writing. For any writer, but especially for a creative writer, the goal is to use the right words in the right order, something that is a matter of both style and personal creativity. This is one dimension of writing that cannot be taught because it is intuitive. But keep in mind that there is a discipline to using your intuition since not all good ideas translate into successful writing.
Be Creatively Honest
Everyone has witnessed a bad TV episode, movie, or theatrical play. While it’s true that sometimes the acting may be terrible, the lines that they read originate from someone who wrote them. If you have a creative idea but it’s a bad one, be honest with yourself and simply reject it and move on. Over time you’ll learn the difference between good and bad creative ideas and then be able to work with the good ideas to produce writing you’ll enjoy.
Watch a show you love and think about the writing. Find what lines you enjoy the most and listen for striking stories you may have missed otherwise. Creative writing is one piece art and another formal structure. Structure can be taught, but creativity must be allowed to grow in order to see the results you wish. Both creativity and structure need to be developed through experience. It’s unlikely that your first story will be your greatest achievement, so be patient with yourself and let the creativity flow.
Selena Marimba is a journalist who writes about all aspect of education. Her recent work is on her plans to earn an MAT degree.
Can’t decide what to read this summer? Don’t know how to get the whole family reading?
Not sure what to suggest for your Changing Lives Through Literature group—or other book group?
This fun Summer Reading Flowchart will guide you to the right book! We thank Sarah Fudin for sharing this fantastic Teach.com visual.
Brought to you by Teach.com
Read Sarah Fudin’s accompanying article—Keep Reading Fun—also published on this blog.
Sarah Fudin works at an education company where she manages the community relations for the George Washington University’s online MPH degree, an innovative program that allows students to take public health courses online.