In elementary school, our hardest homework was called RAH (It was short for Reading at Home, but I used to think it was ‘cause that’s the sound you make when you have to do it). Of course, it wasn’t the actual reading that was hard. Because yes, getting lost inside a book is major-cliché, but when I was little and had no interruptions or other obligations and the books were a lot shorter, I would sit there and turn pages until I finished, and until then there was literally nothing else but the characters and the story.
But RAH. I dreaded doing my RAH because after we finished, we had to fill out a form called “Connections.” Text to text. Text to life. Text to self. Choose one of these options and write about the connection you made. I hated this. When I was little, reading was about, well, reading. It wasn’t about another book I had read before and it certainly wasn’t about myself.
Now, it kind of feels like the exact opposite. The best part about literature is that it doesn’t teach or introduce new things about life; it simply points all of the things you never noticed before.
I’m not saying that what I did when I was little was wrong, because yes, it’s sort of romantic to think that some books exist in a world completely fabricated in the author’s head. And you could argue that some fantasy books do, but even Cinderella had chores to do. Even the most surreal of stories are rooted in truth because otherwise they would just be beyond us.
This is my favorite thing about literature, and all art, for that matter: Sometimes, I have these ideas or things that happen to me that I have no idea how to explain other than “Helmholtz in Brave New World.” The really ironic thing is that even though literature is just words, it represents things that can’t be described in words.
See, words have this magical power where they act like those little bubble things that toys come in when you buy them from the vending machines. Sometimes, if they’re just the right words, they capture intangible things and make them easier to think about. You could write a million words about romanticism and still not explain it as well as Gatsby when he says, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” On their own, those words are simple, but if you know Gatsby, then you know that they mean everything.
And I mean, that’s why I write, too. Writing isn’t about picking words that sound pretty and stringing them together in a grammatically-correct sentence, it’s about picking the right words that prompt readers to fill in the blanks with their own experiences so that they read about it and say, “Dude, that is so true,” even if your experience that built those words is totally different from what they’re thinking of.
Once I read about something, it doesn’t go away, either. Instead, I start to notice it everywhere. In other literature. In songs. In my life. And I’ll look at it and be like, “ ‘All things seem inevitable in hindsight’ in The Invisible Circus” and suddenly it’ll make a lot more sense than it did before because all the associations will transfer over. Because I suppose you could analyze life but it is so complicated that it’s much easier if you start with the words that you already have: literature.
Basically what I’m saying is that while you could go through life without literature or film or other words and stories that people write, it would be a lot harder to understand everything because you’d have to use all of your own words and experiences to define all the intangible things in the world. You’d have to find your own way to express the feeling of “Luke, I am your father.” But since the number of intangible feelings in the world is infinite, we’d get a little bit closer to understanding all of them if everyone just shared their words and stories and listened to those of others. ‘Cause you know, teamwork and stuff.