Thanks to the HogsHead Blog, I stumbled on this wonderful post by Jenna St. Hillaire reviewing a piece by former BYU Magazine Literary Reviewer Richard H. Cracoff titled No Good Place to Stop. Both pieces are well worth your time in full. I would like to comment on three points that are made across the pieces.
Cracoff lists five blessings of reading. I am going to expound on three of these:
Books enable us to see outcomes where we presently see only possibilities; solutions where we presently see only dilemmas; direction where we presently see only impasse.
I think the way we teach law leads to the conclusion that the law is imagination-limited. Lawyers out there, let’s be honest — we train you to stop using your imagination early on, from the way we teach you to write, to the procedural role that precedent plays to the procedural process of separating facts from law. I think its quite obvious to say, there is just not a lot of room for imagination to flourish. Imagining outcomes where there were only possibilities requires the capacity to see the world as it is, and then turn it just a hair to alter the perspective a bit. Literature’s capacity to highlight this imaginary problem solving capacity is something that the law curriculum needs more of. This is one reason why students love the course — it asks them to do what is instinctual — to imagine a different possibility.
Books help us to process, order, and understand our personal experience and gain perspectives on others’ lives.
I have written other places that the law school process is as much about inward inspection as it is about learning how to be a lawyer – the ability to put miles on one’s soul and to encounter different ideas. One stereotype of legal education is that we create conflict oriented lawyers. I’m not sure that this stereotype is accurate — but I am also willing to concede it might be. Law schools certainly create individuals who are more comfortable with conflict than other disciplines. I think the greater problem is that we do not spend enough time harnessing empathy and understanding — key traits necessary to diffuse conflict. Literature does so naturally.
Books enable us to live more lives than the one allotted and allow us to experience impossible adventures.
Finally, one thing that literature accomplishes is it allows us to be cultivated to our potential as humans — it allows us the opportunity to be better people. I have talked in the past about the destructive allure that the garden in the rear view mirror poses. That the bulk of the biblical narrative is moving away from the garden in the wilderness, and moving towards the city. We get, by reading literature, to choose — are we more like a Willie Stark, a Judge Irwin, or a Jack Burden; A Severis Snape, Belletrix LeStrange or a Lucius Malfoy; a Jay Gatsby, Nick Carroway, or a Tom Buchanan. We get to choose the garden, the city, or a city with a garden in its midst. Literature presents us choices of humanity, to shape our own existence after. Largely we do so through the formation of empathy in conversation with other people. From St. Hillaire’s post:
[The blessings of reading are] about empathy, self-ordering, and finding solutions all bring quite a bit of weight to bear on our interpretations of Harry Potter. Much of fan discussion and literary interpretation has focused on the ways in which Harry helps us become better people (John Granger’s comments about being “trained in the stock responses” come to mind) and on understanding and loving the Other; also, Rowling’s own Harvard address spoke of “the power to imagine better” primarily through empathy.
May we read well for the lessons that continue to cultivate our imaginations and humanity.