As the fall semester draws to a close, two students — Paige Nelson and Isadora Baughman — offer their thought-provoking reflections on how they came to study literature and how it can enhance knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.

More Than Fiction: How Stories Make Us Better People

by Paige Nielsen

My first exposure to literature was self-driven but not exactly intentional. After I learned to read, I consumed anything that I could get my hands on. I not only loved the words, but I also loved how those words conjured up pictures and led me to places I had never been. 

Story is something that binds us all together—it is the first way that knowledge was passed down orally, and it continues to be central to how we learn about the world around us. We use our own kind of stories to explain the natural processes of our planet and species when we conduct science experiments and write hypotheses and lab reports. We grow up with bedtime stories and the stories that our parents and grandparents tell us about their days in our place. And besides that, story is how we communicate every day. Books opened up my world beyond the streets of my small suburb into a vast country of spy schools and city apartments, with new countries and planets just past the horizon.

More than anything, I value literature because it teaches empathy in a way that no other discipline can because it allows you to step into someone else’s shoes. I decided to study English because I love the way that books reflect life back to the reader and in turn teach us more about ourselves and each other. I think that if you can gain a greater understanding of the people around you then you can be a better friend, employee, student, and community member. Literature is a bridge that we can use to learn more about dimensions of life that we have never experienced.

For me, literature is both a vehicle for finding our own voices and a way to hone our listening skills so that we can learn from our comrades on this walk we call life. These words we study all strung together on pages are not just created for amusement—they hold wisdom and guidance for all who come searching.

My approach to literature is not defined by a theory. Instead, I approach it with a pen in hand and search for how it resonates in my head and in my chest with the discourse of my life. I focus in on how people struggle and recover—mostly, I think, because I am fascinated by resilience and the lack thereof. I love learning about how people function, and in a way literature is all about how we function and overcome. 

Another thing I often find myself noticing is how literature connects us all together through shared experiences, because if it happened in a book then it happened to someone else too.  When studying literature in high school, besides the assigned questions for readings, I remember always wanting to know how to avoid the pitfalls in my path like the ones I read about in our texts. We focused on societal issues and explored them through our texts, so I wanted to figure out how to solve world peace through one giant book club. 

I have encountered a lot of poetry, plays, and novels, spanning from Beowulf to King Lear to Never Let Me Go to A Light in August to The Brothers Karamazov, and I have never walked away from a book without being reminded that we all have an individual experience that is far too valuable to be muted or ignored. The books I was privileged to encounter taught me about more than their characters and their plot lines. Literature, to my mind, is the best vehicle for teaching empathy because it allows total strangers to encounter issues they could never fathom with clarity.

Yes, Literature Is as Powerful as You Think: My Journey as an English Major

by Isadora Baughman

My study of English literature so far has always been ongoing and natural. Growing up, reading was a favorite pastime. Books were not only a source of entertainment for me, they provided security and safety from sometimes too-loud fifth grade classmates. Moreover, books and the stories they told captured my attention and imagination. I remember being glued to the pages of the children’s versions of Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Jane Eyre, enthralled by the journeys of the main characters and wishing I could join them.

My passion for books and reading followed me through high school, where we had an English class each semester. At first, we studied American classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Glass Castle in Freshman English before moving on to upper-level topics such as British Literature, Greek Myths, and even Literature and Film. As much as I enjoyed these classes, I was hesitant to continue to pursue English when I reached college. With loving books and enjoying English classes for so long, I thought I should take the time to explore other disciplines before doing anything more with English. 

Fortunately, my English 113 class second-semester freshman year reminded me of my lifelong passion for literature and researching ideas. Ever since, I have not stopped taking classes. At first I was just an English minor, but I soon declared English literature as another major when I realized I would miss English classes if I stopped taking them. I enjoyed the freedom of interpreting texts from my perspective and then presenting my points in the form of papers too much to resist.

In college, I have taken a variety of courses: beginning with examining ancient Greek and Roman works, I have also studied literature from World War I, African American literature, and the works of Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway. From my courses, I have learned how much history and society shape the literature we read. Likewise, I have also learned how much literature can shape history and society in return.

While I am reading, I value entering characters’ worldviews and in that way broadening my own. I believe that reading, especially about cultures or characters different from your own, helps you develop empathy and acceptance for others.

I believe literature has this power not only based off my own feelings, but the research I conducted this past summer. As well as being an English major, I am also a Psychology major, and I helped conduct research about the effects of literature on readers’ social cognitive abilities. We had participants read excerpts from fiction or nonfiction pieces and then respond to an article about an international conflict. We measured for different aspects of the social cognitive ability “wise reasoning” (which involves humility and perspective-taking).

While we did not find that the different types of reading affected the participants’ levels of wise reasoning in the short-term, there was correlational evidence that reading in the long-term might affect intellectual humility and aspects of wise reasoning. Reading, then, could aid us in developing wise reasoning and empathy towards others in the long-term.

Although the relationship between reader and text still has to be fully teased apart scientifically, intuitively, literature changes you as it has changed me. It is an all-encompassing, interdisciplinary way to not only express and receive words but learn about yourself and others. How lucky are we to be a part of it.

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