By Brent M. Jones
If our life story creates our identity, then we must include the lives we have experienced in addition to the one we have lived. “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” says Jojen in George R. R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons. “The man who never reads lives only one.”
Another well-known author, Tony Hillerman, writing about the Navajo people and their traditions said: “Everything is connected. The wing of the corn beetle affects the direction of the wind, the way the sand drifts, the way the light reflects into the eye of man beholding his reality. All is part of totality, and in this totality, man finds his hozro, his way of walking in harmony, with beauty all around him.”
We can expand our own experience by finding more about the human experiences of others. To do so, we need to know about the characteristics, key events and situations that comprise the essentials of their lives: their struggles, conclusions, emotional responses, aspirations, and even their deaths.
Authors are the gatekeepers to the lives they write about, and they provide us with the pathway to their knowledge and experiences. Harold Bloom, a well-known professor of literature at Yale, has written many books about interesting authors. His book, Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human claims that the playwright’s vocabulary of 22,000 words was so extensive that it proves he knew pretty much everything there was to know about humankind. That means, according to Bloom, that Shakespeare “invented the human,” or at least a more complete definition of humanness.
In an interview published in 1995, Bloom reflected on the great authors of the Western world, stating the importance of reading and studying Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, and Cervantes. He said of these authors that “They provide an intellectual, I dare say, a spiritual value which has nothing to do with organized religion or the history of institutional belief…They tell us things we couldn’t possibly know without them, and they reform our minds…They make us more vital.” Indeed, Bloom defines humanness using the stories and writings of authors, rather than his own life story, but then, for Bloom, the authors he studied are a part of him.
Shakespeare’s quotes seem to reflect a deep understanding of humanness that resonate with our lives today. I like these quotes among so many others:
• There is nothing good or bad, only thinking makes it so—Hamlet
• Hell is empty, and the devils are here—The Tempest
• Though this be madness, yet there is method in it—Hamlet
• All that glisters is not gold—The Merchant of Venice
• To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man—Hamlet
The meaning of life is much more than our own personal daily experiences and can include much from those other lives we read about. For example, I learned things from Hyeonseo Lee’s The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea that I am glad I can have some awareness of without having to have suffered the personal experience myself. Much can be witnessed in the non-fiction accounts of other people.
Even fiction brings us insight into our humanness. The suspense and twisting plots of fiction writer Lee Child in his Jack Reacher series take us places we would never go and into situations we would never find ourselves in. We find excitement, empathy, and emotional experience in fiction. Literary critics often label a piece of writing as literature, rather than fiction, if it tries to describe the “human condition.”
Poetry can also challenge the status quo in our lives and, by doing so, improve the human condition of all people. An example of this is in the work of Maya Angelou, who fought for equality and for humanity, writing about the plights and triumphs of a marginalized people.
What we learn about others by reading becomes part of the real meaning of our own lives.