Books to Transform
There’s a powerful moment that comes exactly half way through Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet, who has been so proud of her powers of discernment and her ability to judge character, suddenly realises she has been wrong in her judgments of others. She has been reading Mr Darcy’s letter of explanation after his first miserable proposal, and she puts down his letter and says “Until this moment I never knew myself”. Like Elizabeth, we read to understand ourselves better.
We also read to understand others. By entering the fictional stories of those who are different from ourselves, in their race, religion, life experiences, personalities, we gain empathy and a richer understanding and appreciation of difference. Stories that move and engage us give us the chance to try another life on for size, to walk in the shoes of another person, and in doing so we are enriched. I recently read Larissa Behrendt’s excellent novel After Story, about two Aboriginal women who go to England and join a literary tour. I have been the leader of many literary tours in England over the last twenty years and I was familiar with all of the places the women visited. But I am not Aboriginal and do not have a deep knowledge of Aboriginal customs and culture. To see familiar places through the eyes of these two women (the mother narrated one chapter, her daughter the next) made me see familiar places through their eyes, gave me a richer understanding of the challenges they had both faced in their lives and enriched my appreciation of the power of books to move all of us in different ways.
As we grow up, we find role models in fiction. Anne of Green Gables, orphaned, feisty, with her love of poetry, and so eager to learn, was a wonderful role model for me – she still is. Jo in Little Women, so desperate to write and to find a career in what was very much a man’s world, was another wonderful example to a teenage reader. Margaret Hale in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South showed me that when your family moved to a new place (as mine did) it was possible to make new friends and be happy somewhere else.
Stories also allow us to travel and books can take us to places we might never get to in real life. They take us into the past so that we learn from history as well. Thousands of books have been written about the Holocaust, but it is The Diary of Anne Frank which really makes you feel the fear, the claustrophobia, the risks taken by the helpers we come to know through the pages of the diary, and the tragedy when its pages suddenly come to an end. The historical novel is a magic carpet that whisks us back into the past. Read C.J. Sansom’s brilliant mystery series in the time of King Henry VIII and you are there, walking the streets of Tudor London, aware that a word about religion could cost you your life, smelling the stench and tasting the foods the author describes. By gaining a deeper understanding of history, we view our own time in a more considered way, knowing how change has occurred over the centuries, what has brought about what we live with today.
Re-reading books is essential. That gives us a way of measuring the ways we have been changed by what we read. As a young reader of Pride and Prejudice I laughed at Mrs Bennet and shuddered over her stupid comments and embarrassing behaviour. How could Elizabeth endure such a mother, I wondered? But many re-readings later, I find my views have changed. Yes, Mrs Bennet still says inane things, but I can see and pity her situation. She has married a man who gives her no support and simply laughs at her; she has five unmarried daughters who will be homeless if their father dies; she has before her a bleak future as a widow. No wonder she does all she can to find husbands for her girls. One never really rereads the same book! The first reading changes you, then life brings more changes, and when you go back and reread that book, you bring all those changes to the reading and you respond to the characters and appreciate the story in different ways.
As we get older, we need different things from our reading. A young reader tends not to question, but gets absorbed by the story and rushes through to the end. But a more mature reader, often distracted by many of the problems of modern life, can find it harder to sink unquestioningly into a story. The world of books offers us infinite variety – fiction or non-fiction, historical or science fiction, travel or biography, and so much more. All of them have something to teach us and can enrich us. Books help us to grow and empathise, to learn and appreciate, to go back into the past or forwards into the future and to encounter other peoples and lands. Make 2022 the year in which you too embark on a wonderful reading journey – life will never be the same again!