I have fractured eyes and a jigsaw soul.
Years of perusing the stiff, sharp-edged pages of just-bought books have broken and crushed me physically. My eyes are not clear-sighted, despite the endless dishes of squash that my grandmother insisted would cure my deteriorating vision. My spine has curved in subtle ways over time, and perfect posture has always been more of a detested chore than a habit.
“You read too much,” Papa would whisper, pulling away the novel from my hands and locking it inside the cabinet. “You need to study your lessons.”
I’d grown up as a voracious bookworm, spelling giraffe and hippopotamus and balloon while my peers were learning cat and rat and mouse. In my later years I would find a little corner in a library or a bookshop, getting lost in imagined worlds. I would travel to India, go to school at Hogwarts and befriend a lion in the midst of Narnia’s stormy woods. Above all, I was entranced by the infinite possibilities of literature.
Literature is a tricky thing. It begins with thought, is expressed through language, is made timeless by publication and ends up being interpreted according to the reader’s perspective. It’s multi-dimensional, encompassing different worldviews and schools of thought, confined only by the limitations of the reader’s understanding. That’s what makes literature so special—it may seem simple, but it also has the ability to morph into something more complex.
Just the other day, I came across “Reading and Guilty Pleasure” by Gary Gutting. The first question in Gutting’s article is this: “Are some books objectively better than others, or are literary preferences ultimately just matters of subjective taste?”
It’s a valid question. I cannot quote a particular set of statistics, but I don’t think it would be too presumptuous of me to say that the number of people who have read Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight are greater than, say, the ones who have read Haruki Murakami’s Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. It comes down to commercial viability rather than technical skills. Meyer is no Kafka, Twain or Tolkien, and yet she sells.
We may argue, time and time again, over which authors are actually good at writing. What we fail to realize is that the interpretation of literature is dependent on the reader’s literacy and cultural background. As a result, the author’s message is not conveyed completely, the same way a constructed building does not quite resemble the original blueprint. Sometimes people would rather read crude jokes about someone’s ass than face a thought-provoking piece written to the point of perfection.
Going back to Gutting’s question, I do think that literary preferences are ultimately just matters of subjective taste. People read what they want to read, and what they want to read often depends on the dictates of society.
Why is this so important? Why am I fixating on people’s literary tastes and on the correlation of literature and the society?
In the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation.” I don’t mean to imply that our nation is in a state of decline. But if we tweak that quote to have a positive connotation, it will be like this: “The improvement of literature indicates the improvement of a nation.” Against the backdrop of the ever-evolving 21st century, literature plays an important role in the development of a nation.
It begins with how we consume literature: By reading. “To learn to read is to light a fire.” The words of Victor Hugo cannot be truer. The act of reading is in itself crucial to the enrichment of a nation’s constituents, due to the fact that literacy is often defined as the ability to read and write. We read literature, and learning how to read alone provides a foundation for cultivating an intellectual economy in the country. After all, a country’s most important resource is its people, and in order to develop the Philippines’ inherent human resources, we begin by teaching Filipinos how to read and how to write.
Aside from that, reading is vital in the formation of an individual. The scope of literature is broad in nature, and it encompasses so many ideologies. In effect, an individual who reads can relate with the rest of the world and opens his mind to concepts outside of his or her natural sphere of learning.
The second key point is that literature is basically a historical record. Even the most outlandish fiction you come across is founded on the ills and projections of society. Literature disseminates information and educates the people. Information is transcribed and printed on hundreds of pages, and these pages are then made available throughout the globe. In the truest sense, literature is the world’s omniscient diary, one which we can peruse in order to study the literary movements over the years, the political treatises which have ripped apart the world, and the progression of society in general. Essentially, literature is the know-it-all kid who everyone hates but secretly copies off of.
In short, literature stores knowledge and we use that knowledge to avoid making the same mistakes of humanity in the past.
It is a cycle: We read, we understand, and we share what we understand. In the process, literature evolves and expands. Not only does it include the rules and restrictions of society before, it also grows to include society now. This is the most valuable aspect of literature: Its development of a nation by reminding the nation of its own self. In the end, what is a nation without an identity? What is a country without a shared trait? What is a human being without character?
I have lived and breathed literature ever since my formative years. I have fractured eyes and maybe a bent spine—physical indications of my journey with literature, and they’ll never go away. But I also have a jigsaw soul, one that is pieced together by patches from each world I’ve visited, each concept I’ve learned, each character I’ve come to love. Literature has changed me the same way it continues to change this nation, this continent, and this world.
I have fractured eyes and a jigsaw soul, and I know that I am not the only one. I am not the first, I am not the last, but I am one of the people who believe that literature can make a difference. Perhaps it is the panacea that our nation is looking for.