Literature has value, as a mirror and a window

The best stories help us understand ourselves by triggering introspection, guiding us to new worlds and ideas that exist beyond our normal experiences

What is a story?

A story is a flower and the library’s a garden. You wander, picking up what looks pretty and holding it under your nose. If it’s sweet, you smile. If it’s foul, you toss it aside. You move on to the next, looking for the one that will make you ponder beauty. What makes it beautiful? What is beauty?

A story is more. A story is a rehearsal space. Your life, as varied and complex as it is, has limits. There’s so much you’ve never done, places you’ve never gone, people you’ve never met, experiences you’ve never known. A story shows how other people deal with the unknown. You meet the characters in the story and you see how they act, how they react, how they triumph and how they fail. A story prepares you for the mysteries life is waiting to deliver.

A story is a mirror. You measure yourself against a character in the story like you measure yourself against the person in the mirror. The mirror shows your defects and how you need to change. You stare at the reflection and reflect: What sort of person am I looking at and what sort of life do I see? If that’s me, do I like what I see? A mirror is an indispensable tool. No home is complete without it. You better yourself in the mirror.

A story is also a window looking onto the world – on other people, places and times that exist outside yourself. The world is more splendorous and rewarding than you are. When you look in the mirror, you see what you are; when you look through the window, you see what you are not. You won’t see the places you didn’t know you wanted to go to, the people you have wished to meet, and the times you wanted to visit in a mirror. An expanded reality is outside, through the window, not in the mirror.

A story is a guide. There’s a destination ahead. You can cut your own way through the brush or you can follow the steps of the person walking ahead of you. There’s romance in beating a solitary path but why pretend you’re alone? Doesn’t it make more sense to get to the place you’re going and from there, when you’re ready, extend the path so others can follow?

A story is a gift the past gives to the future. It’s the gift of genesis, of culture – knowledge of where you came from. The gift is an inheritance; it must be passed on. You must know the story so you can pass it along.

Not every story is all these things. False stories are sand sculptures: they don’t last. Only the true stories tell us what’s common to us all. The true stories, the ones we should teach in school, prepare our children to live true lives – lives that show the difference between right and wrong; lasting lives like the ones in the heroic stories we pass down.

In the West, we have the richest of inheritances to give to the future. Our best literature – from the Greco-Romans and the Bible, to Shakespeare and the greats of the last century – defies the erosion of time. But only if we share it.

The desire among some educators to degrade and displace the literature, art, history and values that invented us degrades and displaces us. We should know other cultures and traditions, but not at the expense of knowing and defending the art and philosophy that gave birth to the liberties and ideals that characterize the best of western culture.

We fail the past and the future if we don’t preserve the beautiful gifts our culture gives to itself.

Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto. 


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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