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.