During the years I taught at a high school, I spent a great deal of time impressing on students the importance of reading. Some took to that idea better than others. While there are multiple reasons to read books, magazines, and newspapers, I am going to explore just one of those reasons in this post.
Books and stories teach us to see and consider the human condition in all of its many shapes. While thoughtfully reading a great story or novel, we can turn the mirror of literature on our own lives and the lives of those around us.
Teaching high school English brought me in contact with a never-ending supply of stories and books. As I look back on those years I remember a number of stories I discussed with high school sophomores, juniors and seniors. Several stand out, but one in particular stays with me–a story first published in The New Yorker by Anne Tyler in 1977. It is called “Average Waves in Unprotected Waters,” a strange title that is perfectly constructed.
Tyler’s story concerns a single day in the tragic life of a mother who has a special needs child. In this one day the reader discerns what has shaped the mother’s life and caused her to make the decisions she has or hasn’t made. Those choices include marrying against her parents’ wishes and then regretting it; seeing her husband leave after their special needs son is born; staying with the child while paying the bills in a job that barely allows her to hire a sitter; and making a final decision about whether to institutionalize the grown child because, although she loves him, he has become too strong and difficult for her to handle. Huge events.
All of the choices the character made or had thrust upon her cause us to think about the way we weigh and evaluate issues in our own lives.
The title of Tyler’s story comes from a brief scene the woman remembers from her childhood on the East Coast. Her father loved the sea and his entire life and career revolved around it. He tried to teach his young daughter to body surf in the ocean, but she simply stood still and let the waves slam into her. Not adapting or meeting the waves head on seemed like the right thing to do. In the present day the reader sees how much of the character’s life has been dictated by this philosophy. One bad decision leads to a number of ramifications, and rather than meet those changes head on she is stuck in a life in which the waves crash into her. When the story ends it is apparent that she will continue to be a spectator in life and adapt poorly to change.
Adapting to change is a theme discussed by countless writers, and their takes on that theme are highly applicable to readers’ lives. Marriages end, children move away, jobs change or disappear, grandchildren are born, parents pass away, retirement comes along. How do we adapt to changes such as these in our lives? How do we learn from these experiences?
So what do we learn from books? We thoughtfully consider the human condition in all of its shapes, and we turn the mirror of literature on our own lives.