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?
If you enjoyed reading this post, you may also like reading Banning Books Silences Stories as well as Picking a Point of View.
To learn more about Jenny, please visit JennyMHerrera.com.
Image Credit: “Unknown Woman” by Ivan Kramskoy and Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy. Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2018.
Interesting post, Jenny. I read fiction almost exclusively, when I’m not reading books on how to write. Not sure that fiction has made me more compassionate, but it probably has contributed to my transformation into the blubbering sentimental movie-ophile that I have become in my old age.
Thanks for your comment, Larry.
I suppose it depends upon what type of fiction you read, as well. Not all fiction makes a person more compassionate. In fact, I think a lot of mass-market fiction probably does the opposite in that it frames characters in terms of heroes and villains, which might cause individuals to put real-life people in those same categories when very few people in life are really all good or all bad.
I love this! It’s just what I needed to make me smile today. 🙂
I’m so glad! It also makes me smile. It reminds me that people can drastically change their opinions, no matter how strong they feel those opinions when they’re young.
In a similar vein, my favorite thing of fiction is the study of the human condition. Many times we can explore complex problems and see them in a new light through some one else’s eyes.
Fiction has broached subjects that are taboo in polite society since time’s beginning. Stories are what bring us together as people and as you say, allow us to accept each other even with our failings.
Jon, I agree completely! I love anything that makes me learn a little more about what it is to live or what it is to live the good life. I love a book that is like having a deep conversation with a really reflective person because, you’re right, so much can be gained by getting another perspective.
You are making me want to reread Anna Karenina! I find it curious why you felt the need to judge others. I love that you were able to be introspective about it.
I only read some fiction – I am very fussy when it comes to fiction. But Tolstoy – no problem there.
I think most people are judgmental, especially when they’re in their teens and twenties. I think it’s simply sociological fact since that’s the time when individuals are learning the rules of their society and are struggling to live out those rules on their own. So what I’m saying is not that there was anything special about my development in this regard, but rather it was because of fiction that I was able to get to that higher level of understanding. The point is simply that fiction was the impetus for getting out of that rule-based kind of living and into one that is more compassionate and more willing to make exceptions to social rules.
But you should definitely reread Anna Karenina! I think I may even reread it myself. I should bought myself an International Collector’s Library edition. 🙂
Having been challenged with reading as a young child made this a very interesting perspective. The first time I really understood the joys and wonders of any book was in high school. That was when I was lucky enough to have an amazing English teacher who had patience enough to help me understand what books had to offer. In a round about I reached the same point you did but for very different reasons. 🙂
I love hearing stories of great teachers who changed people’s lives! And I’m extremely jealous that you discovered the joy of reading in high school.
I have not read this book – but I certainly will now!
I loved the way you interpreted it through yourself and your understanding of the world. If this was just another review and telling me what happens, I wouldn’t be so drawn in. So thank you for a refreshing take and for interesting me in this book 🙂
Glad to hear you found it helpful! Let me know how you like it. 🙂
Scarlett O’Hara! She drove me nuts – the woman had so much, and kept pining away after Ashley. I couldn’t for the life of me understand what she saw in him. And Rhett Butler, the kind of bad boy with a heart of gold – a total catch. But then, everyone wants what they can’t have. Scarlett ends up as a tragic figure, who realizes too late what she’s lost. And it’s hard not to sympathize with that …
I’ve always devoured fiction. Glad you discovered it. One can learn a lot about people and life through fiction.
Alex, I go in phases. I’ve been on a nonfiction phase for a while now, but I think I’m starting to come around to a fiction-reading phase. I have a quite the backlog of material downloaded to my Kindle!
Wonderful post, Jenny! A bit late in life I read An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. For me, it is the “Great American Novel” in how it put a spotlight on our weaknesses and our hypocrisy. While no one could excuse Clyde Griffiths’s crimes or the way he treated those who loved him, Dreiser makes it possible for you to understand how Clyde got that way. Even more chilling is how Clyde could rationalize his every action, really believe he was not culpable for his behavior until the very end. I found myself wanting Clyde to just make the one right decision that would save his life. In real life, I’d want as much distance as possible between me and someone like Clyde, but after reading An American Tragedy, I cannot deny the fact that sometimes it is just one wrong decision that can turn someone’s life upside-down … and I shouldn’t judge just because I was luckier.
Marie, I’ve been meaning to read An American Tragedy for years. Thanks for bringing it back onto my radar.
Nice post! I’ve learned things from fiction, not just the human condition, but things I never knew about. There are some great books out there, one I’m currently reading, that shed light on history and other subject matters I was never privy to. Glad you found fiction, and you’ve become a bit less judgy. 🙂
Denise, it’s amazing how reading so readily can increase of frame of reference and help us see connections between so many things.
I’m a fiction lover myself, have been since childhood, though more along the lines of genre fiction and epic fantasies. I do my best not to judge, mostly because I know I present an appearance that easily welcomes judgement. Shaved head sides, unnatural hair coloring, tattoos and piercings.
Loni, that’s awesome that you make efforts not to judge. I feel a have a long day to go in that department somedays.
I read a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction and each book can be such a treasure of an education! I just read Robert Leckie’s memoir, A Helmet for my Pillow, and thought: how am I 59 and just reading him for the first time! I can read a Peter Robinson Inspector Banks novel and weep with the tragedies people bring upon themselves. Ah, so many emotions to feel! I have never read Anna and I’m not sure I want to live in a world that harsh. But then…
RoseMary, I’ll have to check out Leckie’s memoir.
I read mostly fiction and I agree with you, Jenny. It has helped me, too, be more compassionate. I think as humans we naturally judge others whether harshly or simply—it’s just a fact. Once we’re on the end of being judged though (like Anna), we don’t realize how unfair it can be. Loved this post!
Lisa, like you, I too love this post of Jenny’s.
I dropped out of college at 19 and moved to NYC – ha! (Though I now have a graduate degree, so I guess I survived my frivolity.) Great experience – so I hope you really are going to try it out. I think you’ll love it.
I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read Anna Karenina. Though I should put that one on my list. It’s definitely time.
Erica, Anna Karenina is definitely a must-read. The movie version with Keira Knightley is also pretty good, though it’s a giant novel, and a lot gets left out when adapted for the screen.
Variety is the spice of life. =) I think reading fiction is important, as is reading for knowledge, and to be uplifted, and to discover. All of these can be accomplished in a single book, or separately through different sources. As long as we’re growing and developing, that’s all that matters. And truthfully, being critically judgmental goes with being young. Or at least, I hope it does. Age and experience really had better open our eyes, eh?
Crystal, thanks for commenting. Becoming less judgemental is definitely a lifelong process.