Wednesday, September 17, 2014

the influence of literature

I wrote this thousand word personal essay for uni, attempting to answer, or at least explore, the question to what extent literature can influence or effect people's lives. It's a difficult question to answer, because that influence or effect, whatever form or shape it takes, is inherently personal. The exploration of literature is generally a solo expedition. A task undertaken, willingly and with enthusiasm, by an individual. How do you measure something so personal? In a way, I don't think you do. Which means that this essay is a futile exercise. But then, I'd never want my love of literature, of words and stories, to be categorised as useful.

Is loving something, and I do love The Secret Garden, and being influenced by something two vastly different things?

My copy of The Secret Garden is in a sad state of disrepair. Its front cover is heavily creased, its once sharp edges now fuzzy and smooth to touch. The back cover has suffered a worse fate, but it hangs on valiantly, a few centimetres keeping it from disappearing all together. Its spine has peeled away in several places, revealing the glue binding it together. The pages themselves, yellowed from their original white, are creased and dog-eared from too many reads to count. Inside on the title page in almost cursive handwriting (so alien to me now) I’ve scrawled the words, ‘This book belongs to Kirby Fenwick’ underneath I’ve written ‘Rated’ and the numbers 1 thru 10 snake their way down the page. One is bad, 5 is ok and 10 is ‘ex,’ which I’ve translated to mean excellent. I’ve circled ten; pushing my pen so hard against the paper that even now I can feel the circle from the other side. A smooth round shape, telling the world how enamoured I was with Mary Lennox and Dickon and Colin. I still am, enamoured I mean. The Secret Garden is the book that stands tall above all the rest, a giant among the many stories that littered my childhood. It is one of my most prized possessions. But is loving something, and I do love The Secret Garden, and being influenced by something two vastly different things? Or just two sides of the one coin? Or book as it may be.

In an attempt to discover what influence literature can have on our lives I’ve been pulling copies of favourites, old and new, from my bookshelf, my desk, the floor and the ever growing pile that resides on my bedside table. I’ve been turning them over in my hands, reading random chapters and flicking through pages, noting long ago creased corners and those freshly made and wondering where to begin.

In Harold Bloom’s, Anatomy of Influence, he says that any attempt to highlight the differences between life and literature is erroneous, because literature is ‘not merely the best part of life; it is itself the form of life, which has no other form’. Literature has historically been a mirror to society, the written form of the human existence. We put in words what we experience and feel and suffer; we record our memories and our legends and our lies. In seemingly stark contrast to Bloom (and just a few years before him too) Plato argued that literature can have a wide ranging - and none too welcome - influence on individuals. I pondered Bloom and Plato’s words as I extracted my copy of Little Women from the pile I’d gathered. If Plato was right, had this classic story of the four March sisters had a negative impact on my emotional well-being? Was my exposure to the often irrepressible Jo responsible for my own stubborn and opinionated nature? And if Bloom was right, and literature was a form of life itself, had Louisa M. Alcott’s beautiful story enriched my life by simply being? I’d scrawled my name on the title page of Little Women as well, the handwriting more reminiscent of my adult tendency to capitalise. And as I traced the lines of ink, I wondered if maybe they were both, in some strange way, right. 

Research into the psychological processes involved in the influence of literature revealed two interesting points: one that literature has a way of transporting readers into the worlds crafted by writers and secondly that readers often take their experiences from literature and apply them to their own lives. As I piled more books around me, retrieving them from their homes and disturbing their not so carefully curated piles, I still couldn’t nail down the extent to which I’d been influenced by these works. The Secret Garden, Little Women, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, A Time to Kill, I Capture the Castle, My Sister’s Keeper, The Blind Assassin, Eleanor & Park - an eclectic mix spanning years of my literary life. I’d absolutely been transported into their worlds, wrapping myself in the winds that whipped off the moors and down the hallways of Misselthwaite Manor in The Secret Garden and feeling the great hope and sadness of Iris Chases’ extraordinary life in The Blind Assassin. How much I’d taken from each and applied to my own life was difficult to judge. But I had written my name in each of them.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the beauty of literature lay in its ability to help you discover that you’re not alone, that you belong - somewhere. Over the past few days I’ve fervently re-read The Secret Garden, attempting to decipher the influence it has had on my life, hoping to find the moment when Frances Hodgson Burnett’s words helped me realise I wasn’t alone. In retrospect, an exercise in futility. How could I hope to re-create those original murmurs of discovery some fifteen years after they first quietly swirled around me? And it was then, surrounded by some of my favourite stories, and pondering the words of Plato and Bloom and F. Scott Fitzgerald that I realised quite how literature can influence an individual.

I can’t tell you exactly when I fell in love with words. What I can tell you is it has been the strongest and most unwavering of all my loves. The stories that I read as a child with my imagination running wild, as a teenager trying to figure out her place in the world, as a young adult still trying to figure out that place - all those stories have left a little piece of themselves in me. All those stories have transported me places. They’ve opened my eyes and my world and they’ve wrapped me up and told me I wasn’t alone. They’ve become a reality of my existence. They’ve become, as Harold Bloom so eloquently put it, a ‘form of life'. Measuring literature’s influence seems a difficult task, but the truth of that influence lies in the way you feel about the written word. Because if you love it, really love it, with a passion that never fades then its influence is boundless. It grows with every dog eared page, with every creased cover and damaged spine. The real, and lasting, influence of literature is the enduring love affair with the written word it provokes in those that fall under its spell.

kb xx