A few years ago I was on an extended solitude retreat on an island off the coast of Washington. With no books, television, music or other people to distract me, I spent the better part of three weeks praying and, for lack of a better word, feeling. As the days passed, I found, to my surprise, that the words that articulated my prayers and emotions were most often not my own. Hopkins, Tennyson, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Dante all wound their way from my subconscious—the graveyard of dozens of advanced English Literature classes—and became a language I didn’t know I had.
People often ask me why I chose to study literature, and it has been hard for me to explain, especially since I chose not to study it in grad school or become a teacher, but I think it amounts to this: I wanted to learn the language of human experience. Great literature is nothing less than the record of the depths of humanity handed down through the ages. It is the most definitive way to hear the hearts and souls of some of the greatest people to have walked our earth, and to learn from their mistakes and triumphs. To read good literature is to see the world through the wisest of human eyes, and to sit under the tutelage of some of the greatest of teachers.
The same could be said of the best music, architecture, sculpture, painting, and so much of artistic expression, but there is something particularly special about writing. Even the greatest novels, essays, and poems employ the common languages that thousands, even millions, can still understand. Letters and good grammar are tools that allow the greatest souls to speak to the lesser, the ones who have come before to communicate with new generations in need of their guidance.
It is for this reason that I am absolutely sure that to learn to read, really truly read, must happen before one can hope to be a good student, or, more importantly, the best sort of human. To ignore the literature that we’ve been given is to turn one’s back on one’s elders and betters, to scorn the wisdom of those who have lived their lives well, who have run the race and won. I studied literature because I knew those were the sort of people from whom I wanted to learn.
Some of my greatest soul friends and spiritual companions were dead hundreds of years before I was born, and yet they have spoken truth to me in ways no one else could. Just as George MacDonald is given to C.S. Lewis to guide him Heavenward in The Great Divorce, theirs were the voices I heard when my soul was darkest, theirs the words God used to remind me that I was not alone, that there was no pain that I would have to suffer by myself. Hopkins had already experienced the devastation of overwhelming desires that did not match his deepest longings. Tennyson knew what it was to grasp at the very bottom of a staircase ascending ever upward, hoping it would lead him home. Dante had been very lost before he was found. And I was taught that to put one’s heart on paper was an act of generosity, a demonstration of love towards those one may never meet, but who will need to know they too are not journeying alone.