The theme of this year’s Banned Books Week is Banning Books Silences Stories. To that end, I am republishing this guest post written by one of my former critique partners. Jenny Herrera’s candor in relating Anna Karenina to its impact on her life shows the transformative power of literature. Tolstoy’s novel is arguably a literary masterpiece and one of the best works of fiction ever written. While not a book as likely as some to come under heat from supposed censors, Tolstoy’s novel is a perfect example of how literature can compel readers to become more compassionate people.
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The Transformative Power of Literature
I haven’t always been a reader. Well, let me amend that. I’ve always devoured non-fiction; I just haven’t always read fiction.
For a long time, I believed that reading fiction was about escape. I saw it as a way of admitting that the world wasn’t bearable sober. Back then, I was idealistic and principled, and I wasn’t ready to give up on experiencing the world without such escapes.
Two things changed my mind about fiction. The first is that I went to graduate school, where “popular” non-fiction, as academics so disdainfully call it, is met with mockery, as if non-academic non-fiction is some frilly drink with a pink umbrella in it. After that, I didn’t dare read my beloved non-fiction in public. And I had to read something.
The second reason I changed my mind about fiction was because of Anna Karenina. It was the book that finally made me realize that all this time I’d spent snubbing fiction, I’d been missing out on fiction’s most fundamental purpose, the one that makes it worth reading, worth inhabiting, and worth thinking about for long after you’ve finished the book. That is, fiction makes you a better, more compassionate person.
I’ve always been a bit too judgmental. It’s a sad thing to admit, and I don’t suppose it will win me any friends to say this, but I judge people. All the time. I judge wives for cheating on their husbands. I judge husbands for flirting with young girls. I judge people for not being polite and even more for feigning politeness. I judge people for quitting graduate school and then their jobs and then, at 27, for moving to NYC just for the hell of it with no idea how they’re going to make a living (which, by the way, is exactly what I’m about to do). But now, because of this one book, Anna Karenina, I judge people a little less.
Anna Karenina, if you don’t know, is a woman who is married to the perfect man. She also has a beautiful son, and she’s filthy rich, and to top it all off, she’s happy. But then Anna meets Count Vronksy, and their attraction is so magnetic that Anna leaves her family and her life and her world behind to be with this other man, who slowly drives her insane.
Anna is a woman whom, in real life, I would probably judge. She is someone I’d point to and say, “Oooh, isn’t she wicked? Isn’t it just awful what she put her family through?” But knowing her through Tolstoy’s description of her, understanding what it was like to be in exactly her position, with exactly her feelings and her heart, I understood her. And I loved her, and even now, if you asked me whether what she did was right or wrong, I would throw up my hands and run away as far as possible, lest you try to corner me into answering.
Since reading Anna Karenina and many other books that involve understanding people who seem “wicked” or just different, I’ve become a much more understanding and a much less judgmental person. I reserved judgment when the wife of someone I loved left him for another man. I reserved judgment when a student made a poor decision regarding his exam. And I reserved judgment about myself (or at least, I’m working on that) when I quit my job as a professor so I could move to NYC to do godknowswhat. And I never could have gotten to that place in my life if it hadn’t been for the books that taught be to be understanding and compassionate, even when someone else’s actions look wicked or stupid or any other name we call things that we can’t understand.
And now as a writer, I get to practice what I preach. I write about unlikeable characters, about people one would gossip about or judge or maybe even hate. I try to make the reader understand them. My hope is that by writing about unlikeable people, I can contribute to making people be kinder, more compassionate, and more loving, especially to those people who don’t get much love.
How has the transformative power of literature applied to your life? What books have enabled you to become a more compassionate person?
To learn more about Jenny, please visit JennyMHerrera.com.