Learning From Stories

In Shaped by Stories, we’ve moved on to thinking about what stories do for us. Life is short, Marshall Gregory tells us, and experience is not the learning activity that we may think it is. Just going through an experience is only half the story, if you like, providing us with raw materials that are blunt and often bewildering unless we can take a step back and conceptualise what went on. Stories chop out the extraneous details, knock experience into shape, ensure that its various parts demonstrate a comprehensible relationship to one another, and generally tease order and meaning out of the arbitrary chaos of existence. And they can do this from a million different perspectives, in a hundred thousand different contexts, taking us to the heart of being alive in places and people and situations that can be radically different to our own whilst still being recognizable.

So, one of the extraordinary things about stories, one of the features that distinguish them from all other learning tools, is their holistic approach. They ‘swallow the world whole’ as Gregory describes it, making sense of life as a comprehensive entity in a way that only religion dares to attempt in an analogous manner.

‘Human beings have to get an education, or, rather, many different kinds of education – the most important kind being an education in how to interact with other human beings – in order to have anything resembling a full human life,’ Gregory argues. And stories, whether in books, films, personal accounts or media articles never lose touch with this; stories are moral in their tenor, no matter how immoral or amoral they are. Lolita is as much an educational story as The Swiss Family Robinson. We may not wish to mimic the behavioural patterns of the characters in either novel, but we will be quietly interested by the ways they interact with one another, the consequences of their actions, and their attitudes of feeling, responding, wishing, fearing, loving. Gregory’s point is that much of the wisdom we gain from reading happens as a kind of steady but unnoticed accumulation of ethical sediment, building up layer upon layer as the stories pass through our minds. And better still, the simple experience of reading takes us out of ourselves, away from the limits and desires of our own egos for a brief while. This mental shift is in itself compassionate – it is the very model of generosity, to see things from another’s point of view.

Gregory understands this (or at least so far he does) as a straightforward process, a kind of literary download from page to mind to heart. Stories crystallize experience, they can define it sometimes for a generation, and books, in particular, exist in an indisputably concrete form. We must approach them submissively as they exist independent of any individual reader’s desires. ‘Indeed, the power of narratives to teach us anything about the world depends on their autonomy,’ Gregory declares. ‘If we make stories say whatever we want them to say, we rob ourselves of stories’ ability to introduce us to new ideas, concepts or points of view.’ And so here we come to the point where Gregory and I differ. Children have an openness to stories that makes them excellent learning vehicles. Their innocence and lack of experience, alongside their pressing need to understand the world around them makes them ideal story consumers. But learning doesn’t happen in a smooth and dependable upward trajectory. Readers (particularly older ones) are quite capable of rejecting stories that do not fit in with their concepts and beliefs, and to make stories mean things they don’t. Sometimes this is good and necessary – an unquestioning belief in all stories can lead to a dangerous gullibility. But equally the ethical character of any given adult reader is a pretty resilient entity, and readers are quite capable of distorting, misreading, or straight out ignoring stories to ensure their moral world does not suffer unpleasant shocks or challenges.

What I’ve come to think is that learning is as much about belonging as it is anything else. We learn in order to belong to a society, or a family, or a school of thought. We learn to belong to the class or the profession to which we aspire, to become the sort of person whose club we would join. And once we’ve reached this comfort zone, we are very tempted not to have to learn anymore, and certainly not anything that might mess up our emotional attachments. Intensive learning, or taking on a brand new skill are often arduous experiences because they require us to give up a measure of our belonging and to exist in disquieting limbo while we master the skill or discipline in question. So I think we can be quite defensive at times about forms of storytelling that ask us to move away from the learning we’ve acquired. The process Gregory describes is perhaps nowhere near as easy and seamless as he would like to suggest. And yet – and yet – stories are the most seductive form of learning we possess, and they can creep up on a person, getting under their defenses, and into their minds. And sometimes stories are the only places where we can bear to explore some of our most profound ethical conflicts. To have them think for us is far preferable to having to consider the minefield of our personal experience. So, my conclusion here is that stories are not a one-way street, not just a lesson between a textual authority and a student of human nature, but a battleground where meaning is constantly being made and remade. So whenever we read, we need to keep track of our own reactions and what they may mean. Because it is in reading stories that we are most transparently and vividly ourselves, even though it might appear that we are doing nothing much at all.

15 thoughts on “Learning From Stories

  1. Interestingly, I read this post right after reading this one http://www.lorenwebster.net/In_a_Dark_Time/2010/01/22/matthiessens-guide/
    Loren relates his feelings in recently reading a classic that was new to him, The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiesson. He found it a fine and gripping narrative, and is sympathetic to Matthiesson’s twin preoccupations of nature and wilderness, and zen buddhism. As a father he was shocked by parts of Matthiesson’s relationship with his children and behaviour as a father. But, then again, he admired the honesty as well as the fine writing. I only read this book myself a couple of years ago. I thought it a fine book, but I remember having some of the same mixed reactions. But I’m not a parent, so I probably didn’t feel as viscerally the issues of fatherhood that moved Loren so much. This speaks very much to the ethical issues for the mature reader that you and Marshal Gregory raise.

  2. Jean – I’ve just read the post you cite, and whilst I haven’t read The Snow Leopard, I would react the same way to the news of a father leaving his son after the death of the mother. Yes, this is a particularly poignant example of the kind of ethical criticism Gregory’s talking about. I guess Matthiesson’s task was to make his perspective acceptable to his readers, as I can’t quite imagine how we are supposed to think that was the ‘right’ thing to do. Or maybe that’s something that fathers and mothers would argue over, having differing perspectives. Thank you – very interesting post to read.

  3. Spending some time guiding or listening to class discussions of literature is enough to illustrate your point about how we tend to make of stories what we want and see in them what we need to see. It’s fascinating the range of interpretations you get and the defensiveness and uncertainty that can come up while talking about stories and what they mean. I love the idea of stories as a battleground — and also the suggestion that we pay attention to our responses to see what they mean.

  4. Dorothy – yes, that’s exactly it – it’s being in the classroom that really shows up the cultural constructions that get imposed on stories, the way students will look for what they know and reject what they don’t. I’m looking forward to us having the opportunity one day to exchange our experiences of teaching!🙂

  5. To misquote Blake, a novel is like the grain of sand and in it is a world. It is a boundless world in that as we know it may have many interpretations depending on its readers, their backgrounds, history, culture, time in history, etc. I don’t know about the child in The Snow Leopard, but how would the father be viewed by say the affluent Victorians, with their approach of restrained, dignified mourning and liking for sending children away to schooling? As for classes, you do see how students hold to what they know – it being dangerous to step beyond the boundary in so many ways for them. I often think this boundary breaking is the main purpose of education. It is certainly one of the most difficult aspects. This tendency to take what you pre-wished for in a work of literature makes me wonder yet again about the well-read Nazis and what limited, self-supporting things they may have taken from their reading.
    From a slightly different angle (but relevant to the wider topic you are pursuing), I came across this, from Pamuk, about Istanbul: “The city’s collective memory is its soul, and its ruins are its most eloquent testimony”.

  6. Oh Lit Love I do love your posts, they are so full of wisdom and useful analogies (eg “unnoticed accumulation of ethical sediment”). We make our own meanings of the world, and once we’ve reached our “comfort zone” of thinking we understand the meaning of life, love, the universe etc, our brains will often refuse to compute something that threatens these core beliefs.

    A few weeks ago, I watched a TV programme about the New Year’s Sunami, a collation of video footage shot by tourists, before and after the event. When I saw these idyllic scenes of paradise on earth, with no hint of any threat of danger to their little children splashing in the clear blue shallows, I was able to understand why they stood around, casually filming the unnatural wave growing closer and closer – even after the first wave had struck, people were wandering around unable to take in what was happening before their very eyes.

    So, yes, “sometimes stories are the only places where we can bear to explore some of our most profound ethical conflicts.” Our brains are lulled into a false sense of security by the harmless fiction, and therefore don’t immediately reject what we’re reading, as it doesn’t apply to us, it’s about ‘them, the characters’ and so the uncomfortable new ideas sneak in!

  7. So interesting. I’m not quite sure why because it doesn’t exactly fit, but this post is sending me off on a riff about a conclusion I’ve lately drawn about rereading and the Bible. I so often hear people of faith talk about the Bible and how they can read passages they’ve read many times over, and those passages will “speak” to them in very different ways. They assume that this is based on the fact that the Bible is holy, is the word of God. However, my feeling is that this “inspiration” is merely the result of turning to the same thing over and over again at different times. My guess is that ANY work read multiple times would speak to the reader in new and different ways, because we are constantly changing, and, thus, the ways in which we interpret what we read constantly change. It’s just that the Bible is one of the few works that people turn to and read the same passages from over and over again. It is, as I see it, all part of the process of learning from stories.

  8. @ Emily Barton — That’s an excellent point, and I can certainly speak to that, as a compulsive rereader of books. I have, for example, read “Jane Eyre” at least fifteen times, first at the age of twelve, and in varying intervals for the past twenty-five years since then. It never means the same thing to me twice, and different parts of it catch my attention. When I was but a mere lad, the sweep of the story and the courage of the alienated heroine appealed to me. Later in life, the extraordinary psychological metaphor of Rochester’s mad wife was what interested me most. And at this point, as someone interested in gender politics, I am amazed and appalled by the implications of Jane’s odd indenture to her cousin, the “saintly” St. John Rivers, who wants to marry her and punctiliously observe all the aspects of marriage while finding her to be physically repulsive. While I wouldn’t compare “Jane Eyre” to the Bible, it’s certainly “spoken” to me quite differently over my quarter-century of involvement with it.

    … but back to Litlove’s post …
    I really agree with the idea that children, who are open, “learn” more from stories than adults do. Most adults, I think, read for solidarity rather than to have themselves and their minds challenged and opened. There are exceptions, and I think even during different periods of an adult’s life, that openness waxes and wanes.

    But this being the case, it is even more distressing that children and young adults are reading less. This is the time when they are most likely to internalize some of those archetypal lessons that good stories provide. Television doesn’t do it, and neither does film; there is no opportunity for the viewer to put himself “into” the story in the same way, and so the lesson isn’t personalized.

  9. Bookboxed – that’s a beautiful Pamuk quote and I think you are quite right with regard to the Victorians. I remember reading Josephine Dimbleby’s family history and the story of her father (I think – could have been grandfather) who loathed boarding school and sent his mother letters in which he drew pictures showing her ways in which he planned to kill himself. She was dissuaded from taking him home by the teachers who insisted he had to be toughed up and made into a man (he was all of about 8 at the time). You do rather hope that childcare has progressed in the meantime. The Nazis raise an interesting question which I’ll get to tomorrow, hopefully, when I’m going to talk about censorship.

    Christine – thank you! How very kind. I’m always delighted to have pleased a fellow blogger. That programme about the children in Thailand must have been so upsetting – the story of innocence destroyed is just heart-rending. And yes, I love the sneaky way that fiction gets under readers’ defences. It must be so satisfying as an author to write something that can do that!

    Lilian – thank you! And I hadn’t thought of the writer’s perspective, but that is also an intriguing thought!

    Emily – couldn’t agree more. It would be such an interesting exercise to read a book once every five years and see how differently you approached it. I’m not a great rereader, but it would be worth it to see how my reactions changed.

    David – children get stories from all possible angles of course – their parents, primarily, their friends in the playground, as well as television, comics, video games. But a point that I like that Gregory makes in the next chapter is that written stories are the only places where we can pause and think about what we’re taking in, and thereby temper or moderate our emotional responses. Television and film don’t offer the viewer any moments of pause – you are obliged to accept what’s before you. That’s going to make a difference over time, I don’t doubt, and probably not a good one.

  10. I’m thinking of Jeanette Winterson now and how she says she trys to read books with persepctives she beleieves she will not agree with, not with the purpose of being proved right but for the chance to be proved wrong. I think that’s a very brave and open act to actively go out and find people who will disabuse you of your ethical notions.

    Your point about how readers can reject what they don’t want to see seems to me to especially apply to the way students first encounter the schools of critical theory in university, all seperated out for simplicity and taught almost as seperate intepretations that students have to choose between and stick with through the rest of their life. Say you take the feminist theory path for example, your sort of encouraged to view other interpretations as challenges to feminist theory, when it must be possible for some of the different theoretical concepts to exist in harmony, without having to knock one down to prove the other?

  11. Oh, Litlove, this is marvelous! One of the Reading in Bed essays I just read the other night talked about how the writing and reading of literature is fundamentally a moral act and then here you go posting about the same topic! And then in the news a few days ago I read about a study on the aging brain and how to keep it working and making new connections and one of the most important things you can do is to challenge it with ideas that you don’t agree with or have never heard of. The researchers suggested older adults take a class or learn a new language. We should add read a book that challenges your world view and your ethical and moral framework.

  12. Pingback: More Reading and Rereading « So Many Books

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