Students and professors in the English Department at BYU–Hawaii reflected on the joy reading brought them, and how it conjured strong empathy despite often being about characters who were not even real. Joseph Plicka, an associate professor of English who specializes in teaching creative writing said of the subject, “literature is kind of the portal that can open up a little bit to allow you to imagine what it’s like to be someone else, thereby helping you form some sympathy or love…The thing fiction does so well is it lets you inside someone’s head.”
Learning to Love Literature
Dr. Caryn Lesuma, an assistant professor of English who specializes in teaching about YA (Young Adult) literature shared how she felt she always loved books, but really started to become a self-described “book nerd” through the fantasy and science fiction genres. She said it was mostly because she loved being able to escape into different worlds. Today, Lesuma said she still enjoys fantasy and science fiction because it talks about real-world issues through metaphorical and symbolic means.
Further along in her studies, Lesuma said she gradually started to read more realistic fiction, depicting people in real-life situations. “That, I think, is what really helped me to see. Especially through young adult literature, which is what I study, there’s been a real push in, probably the last ten years for representation in literature. So, diversity in literature. Let’s represent people of different races, different religions, different abilities, different life circumstances maybe. People experiencing poverty or teen pregnancy. When you read these books you really develop that compassion for them,” shared Lesuma.
For Cara Gentry, a senior student from Texas majoring in English education, literature allows individuals to better understand the perspective of people they have never met, and allows them to better themselves.
Gentry said when she was a teenager, she began to really love literature, especially fiction. “As I read, I was able to dive into this fictional world that allowed me to get out of the rural town I grew up in…Literature allowed me to escape that, and go to places I’d never been before, and to read about characters that lived in different cultures and different lives I had never even seen or experienced,” described Gentry.
Gentry said she maintains the love she has for literature by continually reading and pursuing her degree. She said although the homework for her classes is tiring, she enjoys being able to study what she loves, and hopes to take what she has learned and share it with other people. Although she said she knows the future will be very busy, she plans to take time for herself to read and escape into a world beyond her own.
Charlene Lee, a junior from the Philippines majoring in English education, said she did not know she really loved literature until she tried reading it. “I was always frustrated as a kid because I had so many thoughts but I was never able to organize them. And so my love for literature comes with being able to express myself in an organized way,” said Lee.
Lee continued, “As I have grown in understanding literature here in BYUH, I’m learning to love literature because of its power. Literature has the power to organize and to move people.”
As she has written her own work, Lee said she has created a desire within herself to move people emotionally. “I love literature because I feel like I am able to reach people and to help them at the same time,” shared Lee.
For herself, Lee said she most enjoys reading essays and articles. When she reads articles about the Philippines and her people, she said she is able to better understand the circumstances they are going through as the author’s use of words describes the situation people are in.
According to Lee, authors can make their audience fall in love with a character who exists only in a text, particularly by emphasizing the dual nature of her or him. “It’s finding a balance between the villain and the hero. You realize within one person there’s both the villain and the hero. When authors are able to construct it in a way where the character becomes real- not all bad, not all good, they’re somewhere in between and trying to get better. That’s where people start to fall in love with a character,” explained Lee.
Plicka recalled his experience of finishing the “Harry Potter” book series for the first time. For Plicka, reading is a transcendent experience where, if a book is well written and can make the reader grow attached to its characters, reading it can help individuals learn about all the vulnerable, intimate things that make up a human being.
“Even though it’s ‘imaginary,’ our brain still processes that, files it away, and connects that with what we know about a real person. This entity we would call, for instance, Harry Potter, is not a real person. But yet our brain kind of treats it as such. By the end of the book, you see Harry, and he’s still alive of course. But you know you’re never going to see him again,” he said, referring to the final scene in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” where Harry Potter and his friends are all grown up and sending their children off to school. “I remember feeling that visceral feeling of loss,” Plicka remarked.
Gentry said she sees literature as something timeless which connects everyone together, regardless of where they are from, or even when they were alive. “Us today, we can refer back to the past and be able to learn all these wonderful, beautiful lessons from literature. And the things we’re writing today, our grandkids and their grandkids will be able to look back at what we wrote and have the same connection that we have to the past,” said Gentry.
“Any way you define love, you’ll find it in literature,” Lesuma stated. “You can find love that’s not relationship-driven. Even if you read non-fiction, you can find people who love the subject or the topic, or they love the activism that they do. Love for certain activities. Those sorts of things are also there and are very inspiring. Especially when you see people pushing through very difficult circumstances to pursue that.”
Lesuma gave the example of a book she had recently read, entitled “Bomb: The Race to Build and Steal the World's Most Dangerous Weapon,” written by author Steve Sheinkin. A non-fiction book written in a simple narrative style for middle schoolers, it tells the origin and development of the first atomic bomb, beginning with the discovery of nuclear fission by German scientist Otto Hahn in 1938. In 2013, the book won the Newbery Honor and Silbert medal, according to the American Library Association.
According to Lesuma, the book did a good job of expressing the love the scientists had for their work and their country, but also the guilt they felt when the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, killing over 100,000 people. Lesuma said reading the book, though it was non-fiction and written for younger readers, caused her to cry.
Lee said she felt there was a stereotype stories about emotions such as love were only for women and girls, saying “guys are a lot more interested in things like that than they think people talk about. I think it’s important for both men and women to understand those emotions…Hopefully when people read, they’re open to understanding emotions, they’re open to things like love and romance. One, because it’s a part of life, and another thing, it will help us express ourselves better.”
Lee said someone can come to love literature by “finding themselves” in literature. “Once they find themselves in literature and see how much literature can help them, they’ll love it even more when they produce something that other people can identify with,” said Lee.
Lee also said she has been using her writing skills to explore how she can help the Philippines, which culminated in a long paper she wrote for Dr. Lesuma’s class. She explained, “I hope people understand how important their voice is, and if they love other people around them and love themselves, they would share that voice and try to connect to other people. That’s why I love literature, because you’re able to connect with people in other ways you wouldn’t be able to without literature.”
Plicka shared about Marilynne Robinson, a famed Christian author he said he admired. He brought up a quote from her essay collection, where Robinson wrote about the power fictional stories had to transform the lives of their readers:
“I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.”
Working off of the quote, Plicka continued saying all literature, not just fiction, but creative non-fiction, essays and poetry all have the power to help readers learn to better love others.
For Plicka, wherever people grow up, their experiences are oftentimes limited. Factors like race, class, personality and levels of introversion/extraversion influence the kinds of experiences human beings do and do not have in their lives. Even so, according to Plicka, human lives are full and dense with seemingly countless experiences.
“We have all these experiences and really, we’ve only scratched the surface of what is really out there in terms of humanity and the types of experiences humans have.” He said he loved the idea human beings could learn to love people whom they had never met and may never meet in their lives. Plicka said he knew he would probably never live as a farmer or a factory worker, but reading gave him the opportunity to see life through the eyes of another.
Plicka said through stories, even fictional ones, readers can better understand why people do what they do, and can lead to one having more compassion for people they would not usually feel compassion for. “They might even do things you don’t approve of, but maybe you can start to accept they are the way they are for good reasons, because of their experiences and the way they’ve been raised or the values they’ve inherited. Or the choices they’ve been forced to make because of their circumstances. It’s not that it erases morality, but it softens the edges of what we see in the world,” explained Plicka.
Remarking on the different perspectives available in literature, Lesuma said, “I think there’s so many ways we could apply this idea of love within literature and sometimes that love can be misdirected. But the point is, we read and we learn. We can see great examples of beautiful, wonderful, wholesome love, and we can also see examples of love that’s misdirected and causes bad consequences…For me, when we become lifelong learners, we are able to love others better. Which as we know, is a commandment.”