As an English teacher, my first and most immediate response is: “No.” Now, that may sound surprising (and I’m sure it sounds cynical), but I believe that change is entirely up to the individual. Experience—those potent and indelible moments in our lives—are much more likely to change us than a great book. Of course, even then, we don’t have to change because of what happens to us.
But books CAN change us if we permit them to. However, it’s difficult to be truly open to change; we crave certainty too much. Many times we read not to be challenged or to explore a new perspective, but to confirm what we already believe to be true. Often when my students read a text, they want it to resonate with their particular outlook on life. They want a book to comfort them, to shore up their egos. I understand and sympathize—I’ve often wanted the same thing.
But if you find a book comforting, then it’s not changing you.
Is finding a book comforting bad? Well, no—but it’s also not good. It’s about affirming the status quo. It’s a neutral event. If we were only to read these sorts of books—and they are the most popular books, those which first call out to us from the front tables of chain book stores—then reading is nothing more than a pleasurable distraction. And although I have nothing against escaping reality from time to time (in fact, we all should!), when it comes to choosing a book to study and, even more so, to teach, I want something which will challenge me, because it is only such a text that has the potential to change us, should we be open to it.
In an educational setting, we should always be choosing challenging texts. My best teaching experiences have happened when the text I’ve selected strikes my students as unfamiliar at first: “But, Mr. Copenhaver, I have no idea what he’s saying … I’m sooo confused.” Then, I’m able to help them through it, to lift the veil a little and reveal that it does have something to do with them. I truly believe that working through a difficult text, wrestling with complex sentence structure or complicated symbols or even thematically abstract subject matter, if you’re open to it, can refine your heart and your mind.
Of course, many individuals reject challenging texts and scoff at them, labeling them elitist or unnecessary. Although there are books which deliberately obfuscate to seem intellectual or mystical, there are many which are difficult because the ideas they are addressing require them to be. More often than not, what we have come to think of as the classics—from Wordsworth’s poems to Virginia Woolf’s prose—yield true and mysterious fruit, if you’re willing to take the time with them. (There are also great contemporary texts, such as Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which if mined, can offer similar truths.)
When I was in college, I took a course titled “Sin and Redemption in Christian Thought” and my professor made us outline everything we read. Yes, everything. We finished the course with Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death, a complex philosophical text, which seriously baffled me at first, but with my professor’s guidance and my endless outlining, I found my way through it. In the Preface, Kierkgaard even addresses the difficulty of his own exposition, explaining that its rigor is necessary to truly edify the reader. After that experience, I understand why. I’ve carried what I learned from The Sickness Unto Death through my life; it has altered me.
A text which challenges, it seems to me, is more likely to work its DNA into ours as we struggle with it, our ideas coupling with new ideas and evolving our sense of self. As a teacher, I will continue to bring these sorts of books into my classroom, because I want to offer the opportunity for my students to change.