Written for lovers of literature interested in self-actualization, Literature: How to Read and Understand the World teaches readers how to derive principles of wisdom from literature and apply them to their lives. The book achieves this through a series of five essential steps, including identifying with literary characters, aggregating principles of wisdom from their experience, and applying those principles to readers’ lives. Along the way, the author reveals his own transformation through this process. Literature: How to Read and Understand the World will help you to enrich your life and world!
Over the next several months, I will be releasing excerpts from the book along with questions to keep readers thinking after reading the posts. If you are intrigued by what you read, please share with a friend!
To envision this exercise, imagine I am with a group of students and we have been reading Huckleberry Finn in an engaged manner. To see that all of us are really able to enter and embody the characters in this text, I have us sit in a circle facing one another, and I instruct the group that anyone is allowed to speak at any time; there is no need to raise our hands or ask one another for permission to enter the circle. Then, I say something like, “How am I feeling, as Huck?”
To this a group member responds, “I am wondering about what it means to be a man.”
“And do I have any examples of this in my life?” I ask.
“Jim seems to me to be a good man,” another group member says, “although my dad was a bad one.”
“And in what ways am I like Jim?” I ask, “and in what ways am I like my dad?”
“Well, I’m like Jim in that I am fun-loving, kind, and believe in superstition,” a group member says, “And I’m like my dad in that I long for freedom.”
And so on and so forth. At any point, I could choose to call a different character into the space by outright stating that character’s name, and I could also question the output of any group member by simply asking, “Is this really how I am, or how I feel, as this character?” This would be necessary in an instance where the group member’s emission either doesn’t arrive in the present tense or first-person, seems to contain judgement of or outside speculation about the character, or both. In these instances, I would simply seek to re-inspire the humble mode of Character Identification without negatively admonishing the group member.
“I-as-So-and-So” serves as a summative act for Engaged Reading because it relies on our being able to identify with literary characters at length, and not only that, but to be able to shift between them at will. This is a quality I call defamiliarization: it is our defamiliarization with the narrative of our own lives, through a mixture of Antipodiatry and Engaged Annotation, such that we can bravely and meaningfully step into the lives of others. This is a difficult quality to obtain, first and foremost because nearly every experience we have reinforces the fact that we are ourselves. For instance, many times per day I am called “Jackson,” and I always seem to wake up in the same apartment and with the same body. Getting from this base awareness to the floating awareness of defamiliarization can be frustrating and scary, a complaint I’ve had while working with students on this method of studying literature. To them I’ve provided the reminder that it is normal to be grounded in our own perspective, as well as told them there are benefits to loosening this base state.
The first and most obvious benefit is a decrease in pressure in our lives, one we would experience even if we did no other work in our process of reading literature, stopping with Engaged Annotation and Antipodiatry. The fact is, as Jackson there are many things I believe I must be and do: for one, I am a child of divorce, so must never get divorced; for another, I feared angering my father as a child, so must manage my anger around my own children. These examples are just a glimmer of the sites of pressure that all of us feel all the time; they emanate from stories about who we are, where we come from, and because of these things, what we must be and do. Because these stories are unique to each of us, they are inherently isolating and create a sense of unwinnable pressure; there is no one I can go to for help with being Jackson. Through the acts of defamiliarization we perform in first recognizing that we rest on, then making the leap from the Balcony, we defamiliarize ourselves from the story of our lives and thus open ourselves up to greater fields of awareness. In these fields, we become able to see our stories as just one among others.
Have you had experiences where you successfully “defamiliarized” from the story of your life? If so, what precipitated these experiences? What were the benefits? Were there any drawbacks? What was scary about the experiences? For more on these topics, please follow my blog or grab a copy of the book for yourself.