Into the Woods, 24: The Forest of Stories (Part II)
Thursday, July 18, 2013
In her book Enchantedment Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood, Maria Tatar defends children's literature against the "Facts, Nothing But the Facts" brigade, writing:
"In 'Potter Has a Limited Effect on Reading Habits,' Michael L. Kamil worried that schools have 'overemphasized' reading 'stories and literature.' Children are better off 'reading for information' on the Internet, since they will one day enter a labor force that requires 'zero narrative' reading skills. Dicken's Thomas Gradgrind, a 'man of facts,' expressed equally dreary ideas more than a century ago about what children need. In 'Murdering the Innocents,' the first chapter of Hard Times, he insists with stern passion: 'Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else.... Stick to Facts, sir!'
"Stories ignite not just the imagination but also intellectual curiosity, tugging at us and drawing us into symbolic other worlds, where we all become wide-eyed tourists, eager to take in the sights. Like Lucy on the threshold to Narnia, we are both 'excited' and 'inquisitive.' Reading has a magical way of changing our affect, turning us into serene wanderers and visionaries....
"As readers we traverse vast regions 'without moving an inch,' discovering the thrills of story worlds, recoiling from their villains and empathizing with their champions, all the while shaping our values as we build a relationship with the book and discover its real magic -- that black marks on a white page can create scenes of breathtaking beauty and heartstopping horror in our minds."
"Children know themselves to be the most single most powerless unit in today's world, " says Jane Yolen (in her indispensible book Touch Magic: Fantasy Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood):
"They cannot support themselves, they cannot vote, they have little physical strength, they have but a small knowledge of the universe. They cannot see over walls. As infants they are entirely dependant upon the kindness of adults, and as they grow up further, they are still small satellites in an adult world. They dream of being big enough and old enough to tame the Wild Things.
"In reality, those Wild Things could well devour them.
"Therefore we give them tools with which to keep the real world at bay until they are ready for it. We give them teachers, we give them toys, we give them prayers and chants and cultural attitudes, and surround them with tribes and tribal constraints.
"We give them stories.
"The stories we give our children are, in some ways, the most important pieces in the ethical and moral puzzle they are asked to solve from birth on."
"I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing but a growing up," writes Ursula K. Le Guin:
"that an adult is not a dead child, but a child who has survived. I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth they will act well and wisely in the adult, but if they are repressed and denied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality. And finally, I believe that one of the most deeply human, and humane, of these faculties is the power of imagination: so that it is our pleasant duty, as librarians, or teachers, or parents, or writers, or simply as grownups, to encourage that faculty of imagination in our children, to encourage it to grow freely, to flourish, like the green bay tree, by giving it the best, absolutely the best and purest, nourishment that it can absorb. And never, under any circumstances, to squelch it, or sneer at it, or imply that it is childish, or unmanly, or untrue.
"For fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it's true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that's precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life that they have let themselves be forced into living. They're afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom."
In Don't Tell the Grown-ups, Alison Lurie reflects on the enduring power of classic tales:
“The great subversive works of children's literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten.”
“There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children's book,” says Philip Pullman slyly. And perhaps he's right.
“Fiction is a kind of compassion-generating machine that saves us from sloth," explains George Saunders (author of one of my favorite children's books, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip).
"Is life kind or cruel? Yes, Literature answers. Are people good or bad? You bet, says Literature. But unlike other systems of knowing, Literature declines to eradicate one truth in favor of another; rather, it teaches us to abide with the fact that, in their own way, all things are true, and helps us, in the face of this terrifying knowledge, continually push ourselves in the direction of Open the Hell Up."
E.B. White (author of the children's classic's Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web) noted:
“Reading is the work of an alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a kind of ecstasy. This gives the experience of reading a sublimity and power unequalled by any other form of communication.”
"Literature can shake our lives to the core," John Barth once said in an interview. "Our life can turn around corners by simply reading words on a page....Literature remains the only medium that gets directly inside our interior life."
And from Jorge Luis Borges: "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
There are as many reasons to read, of course, as there are books, and readers to pluck them from the shelves. We read for pleasure, distraction, enlightenment, escape, instruction, aesthetic appreciation, even salvation...and sometimes simply to feed a fierce addiction to words printed on a crisp white page.
“I read," said Ann Tyler, "so that I can live more than one life in more than one place.”
Oh yes, that's it precisely.
“I know there are people who don’t read fiction at all," mused Diane Setterfield; "and I find it hard to understand how they can bear to be in the same head all the time."
Indeed. I've wondered that too.
Although reading is a solitary act, as readers we are not solitary creatures, not really, for our bookshelves contain multitudes. "We live inside each other's thoughts and works," writes Rebecca Solnit (in The Faraway Nearby), explicating the ways that, culturally, none of us can claim true solitude at all:
"As I write, I sit in a building erecting on a steep slope, so that what is on the first floor uphill is the second floor downhill. Someone thought through the site and designed this structure specifically for this corner; someone cut lumber in a forest up or down the coast; someone framed the structure, plastered the walls, laid the oak floorboards, the pipes, and the wires; someone designed and others made the chair I sit on, all of it long before I was born.
"Long before that people established ideas about what houses and chairs should be. I am in this moment hosted by anonymous craftspeople long gone, or rather by their ideas and labor, surrounded by more ghosts in the books in the room and other remnants of trees, the language I speak, the body I inhabit with the adaptations and innumerable ancestors running through it, the city around me, the countless gestures, acts, devotions that keep making the world.
"I am, we are, the inmost of an endless series of Russian dolls; you who read are now encased within a layer I built for you, or perhaps my stories are now inside you. We live as literally as that within each other's thoughts and works, in this world that is being made all the time, by all of us, out of beliefs and acts, information and materials."
Stories are one of the primary materials with with we shape our lives, our communities, our children, ourselves. Stories, as Angela Carter once said, are "the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labor created our world" ... which in turn reminds me of these words by Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan, from her gorgeous essay collection Dwellings:
"It is winter and there is smoke from the fires. The square, lighted windows of the houses are fogging over. It is a world of elemental attention, of all things working together, listening to what speaks in the blood...Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands."
The writers of all the books we've loved, and the tellers of the tales that have formed and colored our souls, are truly our ancestors too: not of the blood but of the spirit. Each of us, by this count, is indeed the result of the love of thousands: we are the children of stories, inherited and then passed on to those who come behind us.
The "books and reading" imagery above: "The Lands of Enchantment" and "Crackers in Bed" by Normal Rockwell (American, 1994-1978); "The Story of Golden Locks" and "An Interesting Book" by Seymour Joseph Guy (American, 1824-1910); "In the Parlour" by Izsák Perlmutter (Hungarian, 1866-1932) / "Fairy Tales" by Jessie Willcox Smith (American, 1853-1935 ); "Alice in Wonderland by George Dunlop Leslie (English, 1834-1921); "Wonderland" by Adelaide Claxton (English, 1835-1905); "My Books by Honor C. Appleton (English, 1879-1951); "At Rest" by Carl Larsson (Swedish, 1853-1919); "The Artist's Wife Reading" by Leopold von Kalckreuth (German, 1855-1928); "Girl Reading" by Winslow Homer (American, 1836-1910); "Girl Reading in a Hammock" by Robert Archibald Graafland (Dutch, 1875 - 1940); "Girl Reading in the Landscape" by Ada Thilén (Finnish, 1852-1933); "A Gotthelf Reader" by Albert Anker (Swiss, 1831-1910); "Breton Children Reading" by Emile Vernon (French, 1872-1919); "Daydreaming" and "The Library" by Honor C. Appleton (English, 1879-1951); "The Library" by Elizabeth Shippen Green (American, 1871-1954); "Spring Morning" by Lilian Westcott Hale (1881-1963); "Reading" by Charles Francois Prosper Guérin (French, 1875-1939); "Reading" by Coles Phillips (American, 1880-1927); an illustration from the Butterick Poster Calendar. artist unknown (American, 1904; ""Little Women" by Jessie Willcox Smith (American, 1853-1935 ); "An Interlude" by William Sergeant Kendall (American, 1869-1938); and "This is Our Corner" by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Dutch/English, 1836-1912).