Literature: The ‘one great heart’ that beats for the world

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Now that school is back in session, students everywhere have begun their study of literature in language arts and other classes.

Literature is everywhere: in the simplest books that are read to preschool children, in elementary and middle schools, in high schools and colleges and in the world outside of school.

When students study literature in school, they sooner or later begin to discuss serious ideas and issues that permeate the world and the human condition.

Whether students study fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, history and historical documents, scientific writings, sacred writings, psychology, sociology or writings about the arts, they begin to move toward an understanding of the world and toward an understanding that ideas of one culture may differ from those of their own culture.

Students begin to learn that novels and short stories are not always simple stories that have a happy ending. They begin to understand that poetry is more than rhythm and cute rhyming words. They begin to understand that historical documents have the power to define cultures of the world. They begin to understand that sacred, scientific and other writings help to show how the elements of life on earth work together.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great 20th-century Russian writer and the 1970 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote the following about literature of the world: “I am, however, encouraged by a sense of World Literature as the one great heart that beats for the cares and misfortunes of our world.”

Think for a minute about what Solzhenitsyn meant by the metaphor of world literature being “the one great heart,” and try to understand how the Bible, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, the plays of Shakespeare, the works of the great world poets, the novels of Hemingway and Faulkner, the horror tales of Poe and all other writings lead us to a deeper understanding of life.

Solzhenitsyn would say that literature is just as important to our mind and spirit as the heart is to our body.

We have heard some people say, “I cannot live without the Bible”; Thomas Jefferson said, “I cannot live without books”; Mark Twain and others observed that those who do not read good books have no advantage over people who cannot read at all.

In his essay, “The One Great Heart,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, “My friends! Let us try to be helpful, if we are worth anything.” He believed that even though we are “torn by differences,” we can find ways to help each other, not tear each other down.

Solzhenitsyn also taught us that people can “help the world in its red-hot hour” by understanding it through the gift of literature and by “going into battle to right a number of wrongs.”

Finally, Solzhenitsyn stated that it is writers who are the chief tie that binds nations and people to each other.

Literature is a part of our lives from infancy through our final years. The next time you see a parent reading “Goodnight Moon” to a baby, a young child reading simple first readers, children reading about Tom and Huck and their adventures, a student memorizing a passage from a famous poem, a ninth-grader reading “Romeo and Juliet,” a history student reading the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, a 10th-grader reading “Oedipus Rex” or “Things Fall Apart” or “Night,” a senior reading the “Canterbury Tales” or “Hamlet,” a college student reading the ideas of the great philosophers, adults reading contemporary fiction, a congregation reading the Psalter or other readings from Holy Scripture, or professionals reading literature from their field, try to visualize how “the one great heart” is holding the world together.

Let us bring on the literature in our schools, in the event that students do not get it any other way, and may each of us read widely and well and think of ourselves as a part of the heartbeat that allows us to be helpful and to have a world view.

With the efforts of all of us, maybe a few of the “cares and misfortunes of the world” will be eased in some way.

Sanda Baucom Hight is retired from Wilson County Schools after serving as an English teacher and is currently a substitute teacher in Wilson County. Her column focuses on the charms of home, school and country life.