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The Power Of Literature Against A World That Feels Toxic

Our public language is often used to demean and distort, writes Janna Malamud Smith. But literature’s truth can sustain us against dishonesty and vitriol. (Hisu Lee/Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
Our public language is often used to demean and distort, writes Janna Malamud Smith. But literature’s truth can sustain us against dishonesty and vitriol. (Hisu Lee/Unsplash)
COMMENTARY

The election season left me feeling like a seagull soaked by an oil spill, poisoned within an inch of my life by the dishonesty and vitriol. I’m certain I’m not alone when I say — to steal from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins -- that everything feels "bleared," "smeared" and wearing "smudge." One positive thing we can each do is choose a wonderful work of literature and immerse ourselves in it. Enjoy the words, savor the descriptions and float along with the way phrases become sentences become paragraphs and strive to tell meaningful stories while conveying keen observations and emotional truth.

Just as a violinist turns pegs gently to tune her instrument's strings, reading books nudges our sensibilities to a more complex and nuanced place. With literature in our heads, we stand in a separate world that offers fresh perspective on our own, and often, simultaneously, a radical solidarity created by carefully chosen words.

The common trope about reading fiction is that it is a deeply private, even escapist experience – one that takes place within ourselves. And while that is true — and a delight — we know, paradoxically, that whatever is most private is also at the heart of our public life, because we are our words — not just as individuals, but as a society. If the only word we have is "fruit," we can’t distinguish a peach from a cherry. If the language we use about other people is devaluing and projective, we create a barrier to recognizing likeness and common ground.

Our collective meaning-making relies on the ecosystem of our language. It’s either a species-filled, abundant environment, or a degraded and impoverished one. And ours, right now, is a verbal Chernobyl -- with too much public language used to demean, debase and distort. Language is too often pressed into the service of cruelty.

Our collective meaning-making relies on the ecosystem of our language ... And ours, right now, is a verbal Chernobyl ...

Yet, we know now that even at their most polluted, ecosystems can be restored. Think of all those oysters filtering clean the Chesapeake or other bays. Think of how with dams removed, rivers once again fill with fish and birds and mammals. The world can be more or less degraded or restored depending on which values and priorities - and which words - we collectively insist upon. Each serious book, each work of literature filters a tiny bit of the dishonest garbage the world throws up daily, and transforms it into emotional depth and psychological truth-telling.

A Polish writer who survived the Warsaw ghetto used to tell me about the secret passing from hand to hand, in the Communist decades after the war, of books by American writers. Someone would get ahold of a copy of Faulkner and they’d read all night so they could pass it to the next person the next day. She conveyed hunger for the sustenance of literature’s truth as a vital bulwark against endless public lies.

The well-crafted sentences of writers are one substantial strand of hope we have — not simply as individuals, but collectively, what Hopkins in that same sonnet called the “dearest freshness deep down things.” Whether it’s fighting climate change, or pushing for universal health care or insisting on creating much greater economic equality, authentic words and accurate meanings offer a torch to light our way.

Editor's note: This commentary is a revised version of a talk the author gave earlier this year.

Related:

Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.

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