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.