The Right Books at the Right Times

heartby Jenni Baker

When outsiders talk about Changing Lives Through Literature, they often emphasize the power of literature to change the lives of the criminal offenders who enter the program. Participating in the CLTL sessions as a graduate student constantly reminds me of how transformative the experience of reading and discussing literature can be for anyone who picks up a book.

This understanding of the power of literature remained on the back burner of my mind during my college years.  As an eighteen-year old, I trumpeted my belief in the importance of literature to the world by becoming an English major. I found, however, that the discussions of literature in my college classrooms revolved not around how we individually related to the text, but on our ability to identify themes, symbols, and rhetorical devices. I would arrive to class aglow with enthusiasm about an assigned reading, only to have the fire snuffed out by our distant, critical interpretations of the text. I quickly learned that one’s personal experience with the text was of little significance in the public forum of the classroom.

If we are not forced or encouraged to articulate our personal reactions and relations to the works we read, it is easy to forget what first sparked our connection with literature and what drives us to keep reading. And forget I did—until I started attending Changing Lives Through Literature sessions this past spring.
 

Listening to the participants candidly share their personal stories and struggles alongside literary characters has taught me once again to approach literature—not as a student, not as a scholar—but as a human with a heart and story of my own. 

While many have extolled the benefits of reading, CLTL has taught me that literature aims its strongest cannon-fire into the head and the heart when one encounters the right book (or poem, or short story) at the right time.

For many participants, the books they read in the CLTL sessions are the right books at the right time. The relationship between these story lines and the participants’ own tales is not coincidental—the facilitator intentionally selects literature that deals with issues of adversity, violence, poverty, and addiction that haunt the backgrounds of those sitting around the table.

We know the power of seeing yourself in a text. Jane Hale of the Framingham program articulates this sentiment well in her essay “What Do We Mean by Changing Lives and, Anyway, Why Literature?”

What better way to explore options for one’s life than to read and talk and think and write about how others live theirs? And about how our experiences and choices are related to theirs? About how we might learn from their mistakes, learn to feel compassion for people different from ourselves, be validated by finding out that others experience the same frustrations, doubts, and difficulties as we do in their own lives, that we are not alone?

As I listen to the participants share the many ways in which they see themselves in the assigned reading, I am actively moved to reconsider my own relationship with the text. I realize that, though I have not endured many of the hardships experienced by the literary characters and program participants, I am there too. Good literature levels the playing field between the instructor, judges, probation officers, offenders, and visitors; no matter our background or profession, we all see ourselves staring back up at us from the pages.

Participating in the Changing Lives Through Literature sessions encouraged me to reflect upon and give voice to the relationships with literature that I’d only tacitly acknowledged in the past.

I recalled how I pored over James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as I weighed the options of moving away for college. Amidst the inputs of friends who implored me to stay and teachers who encouraged me to go, it was Stephen Dedalus in the end who helped me understand that sometimes you have to leave home to find what you’re looking for. I realized in that moment—as I do during each CLTL session—the power of literature to change lives.

I invite you to consider the ways in which literature has affected you and share your thoughts with us. What have been the right books at the right times in your life?


Jenni Baker is a second-year graduate student in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and participates in the New Bedford/Fall River chapter of Changing Lives Through Literature.

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13 thoughts on “The Right Books at the Right Times

  1. Yes, Jenni, I agree!! Literature has an uncanny relationship with life. I continue to believe that literature is also a gift we are all given to help explore the depth of the human heart.

  2. Nice post, Jenni. I’ve had similar experiences to the way Joyce appeared in your life at just the right moment to help you with a decision. I still feel that the books I read help me synthesize complex, forthcoming decisions. Like Bob says, literature and life go hand in hand: literature is about lives and affects our lives.
    Thanks again,
    Allan

  3. Hi Allan. Thanks for your comment–is there any particular book or author that you feel has been particularly transformative for you?

  4. After reading this blog it gives me great pleasure to be part of the CLTL experience. As a life long bean counter I deeply appreciate the arguement(s) for literature.

  5. What Bob Waxler and his colleagues have done in creating CLTL, as you imply in your post Jenni, is lift the literature off the page, revoke it from the rusting mythologizers and theorizers of literature, and return it to the people who read literature for what it is: a projection of how life feels to us–its readers. CLTL gives voice to the idea that we can read and experience literature in a way that brings life to life. We do not have to hunt like detectives for symbols or study recondite theories of criticism to understand why an author puts pen to paper and pores out a story. CLTL reminds us that “the story is the thing,” and that thing is life itself, a part of us– ‘both what we half create, And what perceive,’ to borrow from that insightful old codger, Mr. Wordsworth.

  6. Yea, what Carl S. said!! The kids call it “keeping it real”. CLTL has changed me. I’ve been attending classes since 1991 and feel that seeing life through the lenses of so many great characters has been a changing experience for me. Over the years I’ve walked a mile in many pairs of shoes. I was “Afflicted” by Russell Banks and “Delivered” by James Dickey. I never realized how many pairs of shoes there are. CLTL has helped me to realize everyone is there own story and every story is as valid as the next.

  7. Yann Martel’s “The Life of Pi” landed on my lap as I moved away from home for the first time. Pi’s journey on a life raft across the Pacific was the perfect match for me as I took a greyhound bus from Calgary to Orlando to begin a one year contact at Walt Disney World’s Canadian pavilion. Like Pi, I was alone, embarking on a journey to an unknown location, and away from my parents for the first time. Martel’s book is a beautiful, allegorical bildungsroman and definitely one of my favourite books of all time. For me, it was the right book at the right time.

    And yet, for CLTL, like a first year Literature course, novels are very significant assignments, and most syllabi contain short stories and poems with more specific themes and imagery—though equally as open to interpretation. One thing that I think would be particularly helpful for our project is composing a database of short stories, novels and poems with summaries and talking points that instructors can draw on. Bob and Jean’s book begins this project, but I wonder if this blog could contain a Page (that is, a stationary, unarchived blog post) that could turn into such a database. What information would this collection of references require? Certainly a full citation (title, author, date of publication, ISDN), number of pages, themes addressed, relevant secondary sources . . . but what other information would instructors require to teach a literary work that they’ve been referred to? Tam, Jenni, Bob, Wayne, everyone else: what do you think?

  8. Allan has got an interesting idea here. We did do some of this on the website and then in the book (as Allan notes), but an ongoing list with substantive suggestions would be helpful– (any further thoughrts on this?

  9. Oi, I shouldn’t have waited so long — now there’s so much to respond to, I’m a little overwhelmed. First, books that have changed my life: Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer — which let me see the mother-daughter relationship I was born into, in a new, much needed light.

    Second, an annotated list of readings that have been used in CLTL classroom’s. A great idea but how to mobilize people around it? I wonder if we could ask each facilitator to pick 5 novels, short stories, poems, whatever they like — and annotate them according to Allan’s suggestions. Avoid duplications by marking the readings that have already been taken in some way so secodnd-comers know what they have to choose from.

    This is fun! I can’t wait to see how people respond to my blog which goes up tomorrow.

  10. Like I said, blogs contain Posts that archived and Pages that are stationary. You simply create a link to a Page called “Materials” and invite people to leave their recommendations as a Comment to the Page. To categorize these recommendations someone can easily update this information in a Word document every 3-4 months and make that available in another Page. I think this should work.

  11. BTW, all. I would love any feedback you’d like to leave me as a Comment on my blog at allanmcdougall.wordpress.com

    My latest post is a beautiful poem I found that I think everyone will enjoy. The post provides more context.

    Cheers!

  12. An excellent prompt, Jenni.

    When I was still in high school, my brother gave me a signed copy of Kent Haruf’s _The Tie that Binds_, after Haruf had taught his freshman writing course. A great book, I forced it on everyone I knew.

    And in two years, when I followed my brother to school, I also had Haruf for freshman comp, and then also 4 other courses in writing and fiction, and he became my advisor when I became an English major.

    Each time I read that book, I’m astonished by how such a common (in the best sense), unassuming guy could write such a remarkable book (his last two, Plainsong and Eventide, are also remarkably good), that spoke so much to the experience we inherited growing up on the plains. And in his classes, he showed us how challenging writing was if you wanted to make it your best.

    At a moment when what I needed to learn most about writing was the discipline it demanded, Haruf and his writing were just the lesson.

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