Things I Wish Books Hadn’t Taught Me

There’s been a lot of litblogging interest of late on the question of the interplay between literature and life; what can books teach us, if anything at all? One line of argument suggests that the hallmark of literature is its moral and ideological ambiguity. To take up a stance on an issue would transform fiction into propaganda or polemic, and that’s not what it’s about. My own response to this problem is to say that literature teaches us to question and to imagine. That it’s aim is not to tell us what to think, but to awaken within us the recognition that we need to think at all. The general chaos of the world with all its competing problems, vices and despairs slows down and takes on lucid form for the temporal expanse of a novel, focusing our wandering and confused attention on one crisis, one joy, one wild event. So this is what life is all about, we can say, wonderingly, and with transcient clarity, before the insistent demands of daily life with its short-sighted viewpoint close in on us again. Literature enlivens us to consequence, causality, possibility, creativity and critique. Or at least that’s my answer in theory.

In practice, I’ve found the impact of stories to be more profound and far-reaching than mere intellectual enlightenment. And I have not always found this to be a good thing. In Flaubert’s novel, Madame Bovary, Emma’s ridiculous romanticism is seen to be a direct result of her misguided adolescent reading. If the disaster that is Emma Bovary’s life has a moral lesson to impart, it is, ironically, that taking reading seriously can sometimes be very bad for you. As a child, my reading matter consisted (in retrospect) far too homogenously of Enid Blyton, and it took me years and years to replace her neat, rule-driven moral universe, with the reality of the lawless world outside her books. In real life, naughtiness goes unpunished, goodness unrecognized, people do not learn their lesson, get their comeuppance, or come to their senses; those who dislike you rarely overcome their prejudices, and the opportunities for acts of heroism to disprove general opinion are very, very rare indeed. If you run away, you do not pitch up on some delightful, resourse-rich secret island, and the plots that adults hatch are rarely open to intervention by small children. I made a kind of narrative pact early in life in which I believed that behaving well, being polite and embracing virtue would result in things being ok. I can’t quite believe how long it took for me to finally abandon this life plan, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find a part of me clinging tenaciously to it still.

As I grew older and read more morally complex literature, so I acquired another level of narrative certainty to overlay the shadowy, obscure world that won’t negotiate with us. No matter where you look in the fictional dimension, things happen, and they happen for a reason. A simple event is enough to set off a chain of vivid consequences, people act decisively and responsively, and when things get really bad, rescue and closure are generally in sight. I often think I’ve led a plot-heavy life in an attempt to remain true to the rules of fiction that dictate that meaning and insight are the natural harvest of intense and numerous events. This is simply not the case. No one tells you how long it takes for the plotline you’ve initiated to come to fruition. What struck me about life, when I realized I needed a serious overhaul of my innate philosophy, was how stubbornly it refuses to allow things to happen, how the least conflict drags on unresolved, how the smallest hope gets stuck in the waiting room of expectation, how insight, guidance and rescue are like the proverbial buses that never appear. Most galling of all is the absence of an underlying system of causality. I just love to analyse; nothing pleases me more than the neat division of cause and effect. But mostly in reality things happen for no reason at all, or for ridiculous, inappropriate, senseless reasons that barely warrant the name. As for the emotional life, well, here I have to throw my hands up in despair. In younger years I have to confess to a profoundly romantic view of romance. I felt that love ought to be intense and proud and dramatic; that one’s desirability could only be proved by the enormity of the barriers overcome, and that relationships ought to leave a lasting mark on one’s life. Ordinary life seemed impossibly domestic and trivial in comparison to these outlandish fantasies of what could be. In fact it wasn’t that long ago, having watched the video once again with a good friend of mine, that I came to the disturbing realization that I had assumed, wholesale, the vision of life peddled by The Thorn Birds. No, really! I had to go home and sit quietly for a while and think about what I had done. I mean, it’s not like The Thorn Birds isn’t a good story, or anything. Undoubtedly I would have felt a little easier in my mind if it had been Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, but no one can possibly heave a contented sigh at its climax and say ‘Now those people really knew how to live!’ So how on earth had it ended up as my privileged Weltanschauung? That truly was an enigma equivalent to the murder in a locked room.

So it seems to me that whilst literature doesn’t really teach us anything quantifiable, its influence can be dangerously insidious. Stories are how life could be if we cut all the dull bits out where nothing happens, and fast-forward the snail’s progress we make towards understanding. They are condensed, compact, sharp-edged versions of the real thing. And for what it’s worth, I do think that they are the only means we have of making sense of this crazy business of living. No genome project will ever convince me that the human being is a solvable conundrum, just as no economist will ever convince me that life is statistically predictable. For all the existential blind alleys books have led me down, I would still rather entrust my stumbling progress to their uncertain, enigmatic truths.

28 thoughts on “Things I Wish Books Hadn’t Taught Me

  1. Interesting viewpoint, hadn’t really thought of that though in looking at my own life I would consider myself a hopeless romantic whose ideas of love and marriage were formed from reading and films I embraced growing up…and still today for that matter. I actually think, once enlightened to the fact that the world isn’t exactly like this, that it gives me a good foundation from which to look at life though. I wouldn’t trade being this way for being any other way and like you I would rather embrace the influence of literature rather than reject it.

  2. Wonderful, wonderful post. I agree that stories are the only means we have of making sense of this crazy business of living, which is why humans have told/needed to tell stories throughout history. I can think of many, many things I wish books hadn’t taught me, until I start to REALLY THINK, and then I’m very glad to have read and learned all I have (even if it’s only a tiny fraction of what I wish I’d read at this point in my life).

  3. I do agree – you need a kind of squinty vision, with one eye on the fictional world and one on the real one, knowing they can never conflate into a whole, clear-sighted perspective, but doing your best to keep both in view at once…

  4. I agree with Carl; I’m glad that I have that literary foundation in life. From reading, I also (inadvertantly) learned how powerful, beautiful, etc books can be, so I’m always left baffled when I meet people who don’t like to read or find books boring.

  5. I like the idea of how literature can expand your vision of the world before the aperature necessarily closes to focus on our narrow daily lives. I feel literature (and the arts in general) give us a sense of continuity in a chaotic world — people many years ago experienced the same problems as we do now. The best literature holds a mirror to our faces — even in the most unlikely characters or circumstances, we will see ourselves.

  6. I loved this post. I should say though that one reason for reading books is to discover precisely the power of stories, that we tend to forget because we forget that we are force-fed so many ‘stories’, through the media and received wisdom and parental love, that we fail to recognize them as such. As least with literature we can try to be aware. And there are so many different and wonderful stories to choose from, so we should read as much as possible and play with all those stories, to have a chance of being more than a banal monolithic monologue. I’d rather take my plots from Flaubert, depressing as he might occasionally be, than from Heat magazine or Big Brother.

  7. I still haven’t quite recovered from The Thorn Birds and all the other romantic tripe I was (and, truth be told, still am) addicted to. It made a poor foundation for life, as would have the absence of story. For me there is a third option, faith, which is meaningful, orderly, and even narrative, without the unrealism of romance and the emptiness of chaos.

  8. Yes! I believe fully that reading changes us in ways we don’t always realize for quite some time. But, really, how can something we spend so many hours on NOT change us? There has to be some effect of reading story after story after story. And I like the thought that literature can help us realize that we need to think.

  9. I too grew up reading far too much Enid Blyton and suffered dearly for it in the playground power structure. If only I’d read “Lord of the Flies” back then I’d have been better prepared… I think that that very juxtaposition helps me to sort out my view of how helpful or damaging literary lessons can be in the real world though. I think that we pick up the sort of expectation-shaping narratives that you describe in many different places. They’re presented to us in movies, on television, in magazines etc, and sold to us in advertising. And I believe that as long as one reads widely, the complex, diverse picture that one can draw from books can prove more useful than what’s on offer in various other mediums.

  10. Litlove,

    The ideas in this post intrigued me. I have, since reading it, considered the un-heroic nature of life when compared to say really great high fantasy.

    But then I considered the heroism that I read about every day in Non-Fiction the truly epic heroism of say the soldiers of the Great War and other wars. The leadership qualities that Lincoln showed (I have just finished Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin) and I thought too about how truly unpleasant people can be seen at least in retrospect for what they were.

    I think that perhaps the problem is not that Literature fills us with ideas and dangerous notions, nor even that the world is not as portrayed as in these novels and books. But even as the world is not as heroic as portrayed in a non-fiction book, the reality of concentrating on subjects and topics, real (non-fiction) or imagined (fiction) places them for a time at the forefront of our thoughts so that they occupy a distorted position of importance.

    It is almost as if by applying attention to a subject we enhance the importance of that subject beyond its real relevance and are unable to take account of that anomaly and so are doomed to, in a sense, be disappointed by the seeming disparity between the weak manifestation of a particular current of life in real life and the more vibrant manifestation in fiction or non fiction.

    In a sense that is wonderful and truly magnificent and yes, exceedingly dangerous!

  11. I agree Eoin, good thoughts.

    I guess for me between any unrealistic expectations put forth by literature, movies, etc. and the hyper-realistic truth of day to day life there has to be a balance. I have to live in the day to day world and yet the things that uplift and influence me in my reading are things that I like to try to bring to real life. For instance life isn’t non-stop romance, but reading something with a romantic bent not only reminds me that this is something important to me but inspires me to look at my life and examine whether or not I have been acting kind and loving to those around me lately or not. And that’s just one example. I wholeheartedly agree that if, especially at a young age, all your ideas about reality are formed from reading and watching things where everything ends happily, or unhappily, etc. that you will be somewhat unprepared for the world. At the same time taking all the mess ones sees in the world as true reality is also wrong as it negates the existence of one important factor: the influence a person can have on his or her own environment. It is that influence that I contend is remarkably enhanced by a love of literature.

  12. Beautiful post. I also read too much and have always wondered deep inside why the real world does not conform to the proper codes of narrative. I search for themes and I find little scraps of memories that seem to be words, or phrases that clearly (?) indicate that there is an undeniable thread running through my life and I just need to be more careful about finding it. Once I discover it, everything will become clear and my life’s story will make, at last, some sort of sense. But there is no plot, or there is not any single, carefully planted and lovingly tended plot. Instead, there is a messy, unkempt forest of broken branches and wild vines weighing upon the trees. And of course this romantic idea is no more valid than my old desire for a nice rising action with me as the inevitable hero.

  13. Wonderful post. I’m like Bikeprof. I keep looking for the plot and trying to figure out the overarching themes. And I often find myself disappotined that there has been no inevitable driving force leading me to my deserved destiny, which of course is grand and exciting.

  14. I think what is confusing if you are a book addict still learning about life is the mixture of reality (recognisable people doing recognisable things) and unreality (grand passions, grand drama, heroes and action). I certainly took the romance I found in books as my pattern and, until I relinquished it completely, never found anything that life offered me remotely satisfying. I guess that’s growing up: loving what books offer you but no longer seeking it in your life. Now that I accept that my life is domestic and not remotely grand, I enjoy books even more – as escape.

  15. But isn’t that the whole point of blogging? You take your domestic life – your life which is Lord of the Flies, not Enid Blyton – and transform it into a narrative. Reading these posts, and their nice, neat categories, it’s very easy to see blogging as a (successful?) attempt to impose narrative structures on real life, with the blogger being at once protagnoist and author with – crucially – an audience to read this doubly realised narrative.

    I think that’s one of the very real dangers of the internet – that often, the invented life, or everquest character, is more appealing than reality and eventualyl you wear away all the lines. The same applies to photoblogging and the overposed pictures I put on my flickr account. If blogging is imposing a meta-narrative on life, then my photos are letting me direct my own film (OK I’m stretching a metaphor – what I’m really doing is making my own promotional stills).

    Talking about books is lovely because there’s a topic for conversation but I think once you reach the point of sordid bare confessional you have to start asking why you’re so desparate to impose the narrative – is it because half the pages are missing?

  16. Frances – I really like that comment about blogging as an attempt to codify life into narrative structures. I think we all want life to work as a narrative and so any attempt to give voice to what we feel/live will turn into a narrative of sorts. What I like about Litlove’s blog is how she tries to locate the faultlines in her own beautiful prose, how she opens things up so we can interrogate them too. I guess also blogs are shaped by dialogue and by comments like yours and so they are less a finished, polished product than a perpetual rewriting that depends on its own incompletion as its condition of possibility. And yes, at least half the pages are missing, or at least they are blank and we have yet to write on them, and that is the beauty of it.

  17. I often feel I haven’t a clue about what’s going on until I’ve written about it. Somehow, putting things into words is a very reassuring activity for me. But once I’m doing that I also want to find out where the edges are – where things stop working, or where they collapse into contradiction and paradox. I think that stories give me a chance of thinking things through, but once I’ve got that far, I need to go beyond that point. What I love about the comments I get here (and they are really so impressively insightful) is that they show me angles and perspectives I hadn’t thought of. I get the sense of being really listened to, and that’s extremely valuable to me.

  18. Most galling of all is the absence of an underlying system of causality. I just love to analyse; nothing pleases me more than the neat division of cause and effect. But mostly in reality things happen for no reason at all, or for ridiculous, inappropriate, senseless reasons that barely warrant the name.

    I’m not sure about this. Certainly life is messier and more complex than fiction ever can be; but at the same time, our perspective on life is more limited than our perspective on fiction. Even stories with first-person narrator typically give you a sense of what the other characters are doing and why that we can’t rely on having in real life, and any novel in a loose third or omniscient voice gives us a much more privileged perspective. So I do sometimes wonder how much of the seeming chaos of real life is a product of only being able to see our own story. When we’re stalled, do we forget that it’s probably because someone else’s story is moving forward?

  19. The question about a book that changed my life really perplexed me recently. I couldn’t think of a single example. And yet, I cannot help but think that reading literature can be a transformative event. If literature didn’t pose the possibility of causing one to think and therefore to question or reject commonly held beliefs, there would not be those who want to ban books. The Catholic Church would never have had the Index Librorum Prohibitorum; the Ayatollah never would have issued a fatwa against Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses; the groups that occassionally petition schoolboards against a particular work that doesn’t conform to their belief system would not be given media attention. (While not pervasive, it seems that this happens some where in the States at the beginning of each school year; I’m sure there will be a new story in the press any day now.)

    Labeling something as propaganda (a word that originally referred to the Catholic Church’s efforts to propagate the faith but later took on the current derogatory meaning) is only done when one doesn’t agree with the position set forth. While there is a difference between information (or mis-information depending on one’s point of view) and fiction, it is the possibility of literature being transformative that sometimes frightens some and can lead to opposition or banishment.

    If literature can be perceived as potentially transformative in a damaging sort of way, it must have the capabilities to transform in a positive way as well.

    Great post, LitLove.

  20. Superb post, Litlove. Your language is beautiful. Your point about The Thorn Birds has me nodding in agreement. I had a very similar experience with Atlas Shrugged in my teens, which is when that kind of novel has a tremedous impact. I was happy in that rather myopic bubble, but I often wonder if I might have been better off without it.

    Niall, you make an interesting point that one may not be able to define cause and effect in life’s muddles because we don’t have the peripheral vision that the writer provides us in a work of fiction. This, I think, is true to an extent, but the original point still stands. I mean, even if we were able to have the widest possible peripheral vision in real life, some things will still be arbitrary in nature. We will not be able to say why they happen. I think that “everything has an underlying reason” is untrue, and that “everything is connected” is a new-agey or mystical way of saying the same thing.

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  23. Polaris — you’re right that it’s possible to take my suggestion too far. But there’s a difference, I think, between saying we live in a predictable universe and saying we live in a causal universe. Unless you’re of the opinion that quantum effects manifest on the macro scale on a regular basis, which I’m not, then it is literally true to say that everything has a cause. That’s not the same as saying the outcome of any action can be predicted — everything has a sensitive dependence on initial conditions, and there will always be butterflies flapping their wings that we can’t factor in to our thinking. But I also think we shouldn’t be too eager to sit back and assume events are random; we should try to find causes, and be aware that they just might be nothing to do with us personally.

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  25. Re: Emmma Bovary’s reading, consider reading Jane Eyre with an eye to how Jane’s ‘autobiography’ is shaped by her reading. It’s a far more subversive book and far less romantic if one does.

  26. Now I feel bad for reading “Windows for Dummies.”

    Just kidding. 😀 This is an interesting notion, and it has made me go back and look at some of the formative literature that I read as a teen and young adult. Hmm… I read a lot of trash. Not sure what that says about who I’ve become.


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