“A well-read woman is a dangerous creature”
— Lisa Kleypas
I first stumbled across Allen Ginsberg by accident; I had been browsing lyrical videos of poems online when ‘Howl’, one of his most well-known works, popped up under the ‘recommended for you’ bar. I clicked on it somewhat naively having never heard of the man before, nor his work. The poem, I found, was a mesmerising vortex that revealed all, no matter how painful.
For a while I wondered why I hadn’t come across him sooner, why I hadn’t studied the likes of him in English class (or why his name hadn’t come up despite being friends with William S. Boroughs and the lot). Of course the answer was simple; a girls’ only (and presbyterian) school has to be careful what they show their students, everything (I imagine, for it may not be the case) is censored.
It got me thinking about the books, the works, we were exposed to. As I was a part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program we were required to explore various cultures outside of our own, this led to us reading widely about various topics, some of which seemed almost inappropriate (female mutilation in ‘The Woman at Point Zero’ by Nawal El Saadawi ). We were made uncomfortable by Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ as we put ourselves in the Handmaid’s shoes, and Albert Camus’ Outsiders where we lingered wondering at the narrative.
And it was fantastic! All those stories we read that made us feel uncomfortable, it was for a reason, they made us think. We may not have realised, as I didn’t at the time, that that’s why we felt that unease, but I truly believe it was. Previously we’d read ‘safe’ texts, works that wouldn’t frighten us, speak of topics we’d yet to be exposed to or ask us to question our society and the things around us, and suddenly being asked to do just that was frightening in a sense, though I doubt any of us truly registered the emotions we felt.
I quite strongly believe that the purpose of storytelling is provoke thought, be it good or bad, to inspire or to teach. Had I not done the IB I don’t believe I would have read half the things we did which, I think, is fantastic. But still I can’t help but wonder how many masterpieces the teachers shook their head over (both in the past and in the present), deep in discussion, citing them too vulgar or profound for our naive feeble minds?
Literature can very easily broaden one’s world views, even in minuscule amounts, or so I’d like to believe, I’m sure it’s not as simple as I make it out to be. Literature, however, links us almost intimately with those beyond our reach, their stories are glimpses into their lives, their cultures and thoughts. And that’s empowering, for both sides, for those that wrote the stories and the readers that then read them.
‘Why do we read?’ the question asks, ‘To see,’ I respond.
What sort of stories were you made to read at school? Do you/did you agree with those that were chosen for you? What are some stories or authors you wish you’d discovered earlier? What would you have done differently if you were in charge of the English curriculum for the you of the past?
Photo by Dave Bledsoe