Reading Great Literature Can Help us Regain Our Balance - Guest Post by Peter Leyland

Reading great and good literature, I thought, could help us regain our balance when the mind is distressed or out of equilibrium as a result of illnesses, disabilities or traumatic events encountered in the course of an ordinary life. I had read Montaigne, Dante, George Eliot, and a number of more modern authors like Jay Griffiths on the subject and I wanted to test the idea that our emotional health could benefit from reading and discussing novels and poetry in a learning situation and that this could directly affect our wellbeing. Mark Edmondson in Why Read? (2004) says that we can construct ourselves from novels, poems and plays and that like Proust, writers can get the reader to feel what they feel. 

I set up a project with adult education students to test my idea. The course was free and took place over five weeks with students advising me how to plan it. One came up with this:

'Reading can enhance our life: reading poetry/novels can lift us out of our everyday experience, and offer us pleasure, mental stimulation, a sense of well-being and company.'

How does literature affect us, improve our sense of connection and hearten us, encourage us to express ourselves and empathise with others? To answer this, we looked at favourite novels, poems, and autobiographical works. I used a random teaching approach and kept a reflective journal:

"The idea of randomness worked beyond my wildest dreams. As each student read and each piece was discussed the next followed on with little prompting from me. One student read the words of The Beatles’ In My life while another whom I had not thought would have the confidence to present, read Robert Frost’s The Road not Taken; one read an extract from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables that had been read together with a now deceased partner some years ago; another read the lyrics of a Leonard Cohen poem, Nightingale. The student whom I quoted above about planning the course, read Seamus Heaney’s Postscript from The Spirit Level, where on a road trip to County Clare he feels a moment of empathy with the world around him:

        'Useless to think you’ll park and capture it       
         More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
         A hurry through which known and strange things pass
         As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
         And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.'

I found the session incredibly moving and when I called a break, I suggested that everybody walk around the room. I certainly had to."

At the end of the five weeks, I asked the students to talk about why reading literature mattered to them: I wrote down the responses. One of them was:

         It was an opportunity to step inside another mind.

And another was:

         It brought you out of yourself into a different world.

But even more powerful was this:

         It can make someone who belonged nowhere belong somewhere.

This response made me think of a refugee from war, famine, or oppression, setting off from a distant shore and arriving somewhere else where they were not known. I thought that through literature they could find those ‘spots of time’, which the poet Wordsworth felt would heal and restore. As George Eliot put it:

'(Art) is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.'

At the end I thought I had shown that reading great and good literature could restore our equilibrium - A Spirit Level. The adult education project had given me and my students a valuable learning experience.

         I made one from glass tubing
         annealed in a Bunsen flame
         and filled with coloured liquid
         set in balsa wood and like
         the carpenter my father
         found the balance to begin
                       Peter Leyland 16/04/20

Peter Leyland works for the WEA, the largest adult education charity in the UK.


Griselda Heppel said…
What a marvellous course to run at this time - yes, yes, exactly what people need. Thank you so much for sharing it. Your students put what literature can do beautifully.
When you go on to think about what literature can do for people going through or emerging from great trauma, I remembered that famous scene in Primo Levi's If This Is a Man, when he quotes Ulysses's lines from Dante's Inferno. The strength he draws from their sheer beauty and the affirmation that 'men are not made to live like brutes', however much brutalised by Auschwitz, is one of the most moving and powerful things I've ever read.
Peter Leyland said…
Thanks very much for your comments Griselda.
Umberto Tosi said…
What a fine, illuminating course you conducted! I hope you have the opportunity to continue giving it.

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