Stories and People-ness: Word-Wonder Day 17

Word-WonderI’ve always loved stories, and I’ve always preferred reading stories to reading other kinds of prose. And, often, I feel twinges of guilt or inferiority when I see people who delight in reading “serious” — i. e. non-story — prosings. (My taste for non-story is growing, but that’s mostly because, I think, I’m learning to see how the non-story fits into the story.) Now I am a teacher of literature; a good portion of the literature I teach is story, and another portion is poetry, and sometimes I feel like I’m wasting my time and my students’, instructing them in such impractical subjects.

They don’t think they need a class on literature, except in so far as it is a step on the way to a coveted diploma. It’s to my advantage that they take it, in entirely practical terms, but most of them won’t be working in humanities instruction when they leave school. And, while “It’s-a-requirement” is a sufficient reason for them to be in my classroom, I’d like to be able to persuade them that there is more in it for them than the diploma.

Because there is more. Lovers of stories have always known it — the way that stories make our worlds larger, the way that they help us see other people, the way that they help us see ourselves — but now, for a culture more ready to trust science and statistics than the testimony of human souls, we have studies to back up what we’ve always known.

Annie Murphy Paul, in a New York Times article published last year, cites studies in neuroscience which show that “stories . . . stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life,” because “the brain . . . does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.” Therefore, reading the right kinds of fiction can teach us things about real life, make us broader and deeper souls.

This month, Pam Belluck reported on a new study which “found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.” Again, literature improves living.

Part of the project of a college education is to learn to be a more complete person, because — let’s face it — if employers out in the world really wanted to hire subject-specific automatons, it would be easier to hire computers: the people-ness of people is still valuable. Literature — story — enhances the people-ness of people.

My job, as a sharer of stories, plays a part, then, in making the diploma mean more than “subject-specific automaton.” But it also plays a part in making the students more than diploma-earners; quite aside from the diploma, the literature classes are worth something. Wouldn’t we all like to partake of enhanced “people-ness”?

Stories are not impractical. They need no apology. They do not waste time.

©2013 by Stacy Nott

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