Literature for life

“To read is to enter other points of view; it is to be an invisible observer of circumstances which might never be realised in one’s own life; it is to meet people and situations exceeding in kind and number the possibilities open to individual experience.”

– A.C. Grayling, The Meaning of Things

In my latest article for Together magazine, I wrote about how literature can challenge us and teach us how to live. It is pasted in below or you can click on the link.

My love for reading is really something that has come later in life. During childhood and adolescence, I viewed reading more as a chore then a leisure activity (apart from loving Roald Dahl’s books). In secondary school, I remember once discussing Harry Potter with my Head Mistress during a formal lunch. I will never forget her stern look when I told her that I just didn’t get why Harry Potter was so amazing (I tried reading ‘Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone’ and I got bored and gave up just after Harry arrived at Hogwarts).

I’ve gotten used to not finishing books, whether it’s because I did not have the courage to carry on due to the sheer sadness of the story (Primo Levi’s ‘If This is a Man’), the author’s neuroticism pervading through the book (Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’), a really annoying character (Jane Austen’s Mr Knightley, and Emma for that matter), or due to boredom (sorry, Harry). I have made peace with leaving books unfinished.

Saying that, reading is one of life’s pleasures. People often say that to travel broadens the mind and expands our horizons. I don’t disagree, but reading trumps this because it enables us to take the most important journey of all, the one inward.

Enjoy the article!

 Living by the book: Gemma Rose believes that literature challenges us and teaches us how to live

I am my father’s daughter. I can spend hours in a bookshop or library. I go in with the intention of getting one book but end up coming out with three or four more. I absolutely love stumbling upon hidden gems: books with catchy titles or front cover artwork, recommended books or other works by my favourite authors. These are really magical moments. I have to admit though, I still have books that I’ve bought which I haven’t got round to reading yet (but I still like showing them off on my bookshelf), paying heed to the German philosopher Schopenhauer: “One usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.”

Another magical moment is when I have let a book go and it finds its way back into my life again, sometimes years later. One such book is JK Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a set of short-stories for young wizards and witches written by Beedle the Bard, a mysterious figure from 15th-century Yorkshire, England, with an exceptionally luxuriant beard. A friend of mine had lent it to me back in 2008. I had been particularly taken by the story The Fountain of Fair Fortune, a tale of three ill-fortuned witches and a luckless knight striving to bathe in the fountain to cure their ills. One witch, Amata, had been abandoned by her lover and yearned to mend her broken heart. At the time, I, too, had been struggling with heartbreak, so I found this story particularly touching. This story stayed with me for a long time, and I would often recall it when I needed consolation. A couple of years later, I found the book in a charity shop staring right back at me. It’s been with me ever since.

Last year, there was a wave of press about how reading had been scientifically proven to make you more empathetic. The journal Science published a study by New York’s New School of Social Research, which showed that, in five experiments, persons who had read excerpts of literary fiction performed better in emotional intelligence tests than those who read nonfiction, popular fiction or nothing at all. Dan Hurley, science journalist and author of Smarter: The Science of Building Brain Power, has reported that there is a symbiotic relationship between reading and emotional intelligence, fluid intelligence (the ability to solve problems) and crystallised intelligence (knowledge that you build upon, such as vocabulary and information).

The importance, though, is not just what we read but how we read it. The study in Science used Chekhov, Don DeLillo and Téa Obreht as examples of literary fiction and Danielle Steel as an example of popular fiction. It is often acknowledged that popular fiction has the element of passivity in it, that perhaps the plot and the characters’ lives can be predictable. Rather, for reading to become an activity and for us to be thoroughly enriched by it, we ought to read books that challenge us, forcing us to reflect and to think for ourselves. The Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Canton recently wrote about the danger of treating literature as a consumer product, something easily attained and easily disposable without putting in the effort: “Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither.”

Stories – for me particularly, short stories – remind me that I am human: I make mistakes; I make assumptions; I accept life’s lemons with serenity one day; I fight against it the next. I experience unrequited love, abandonment and romantic regret. And, yet, I also feel the sensation of growing attachment and unconditional love. By reading stories, I am comforted that I am not alone and that I, too, am part of the imperfection that constitutes mankind.

Most recently, I made an assumption that could have cost me an important friendship. Before I let this assumption take hold of me, I brought myself back to the short story Painted Ocean, Painted Ship by Rebecca Makkai. The story focuses around a young woman who was becoming frustrated at her partner’s unwillingness to reassure her of her beauty and her worth. The woman realizes how her obstinate nature could have cost her the love of a good man: “The point, the moral, was how easy it was to make assumptions, how deadly your mistakes could be. How in failing to recognize something, you could harm it or kill it or at least fail to save it.”

Advertisements

Higher Pleasures

“Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”

– Oscar Wilde

I am trying to live within my means as of late. I went on such a crazy spending spree in January that I was very close to reaching my credit card limit. I am now feeling ever so slightly guilty at my over-indulgence; my poor will-power and absolute lack of discipline in saving money.

I was in a real pickle last week about whether to go to a Jazz concert. I have always been a bit of a Jazz fan – and my Dad and I are currently doing an online Jazz appreciation course – so I was extremely excited when I recently picked up a flyer for this concert. I naively thought that there would still be cheap tickets available. But no, only the expensive ones were left.

I agonised about whether it was worth buying a ticket. I had already dipped into my savings to pay off last month’s credit card bill and it didn’t seem like I would manage to save this month either. Could I really afford to go to a concert? “A penny saved is a penny earned” said founding father of the US and polymath Benjamin Franklin. My guilty conscience was telling me to save the money.

I ignored it all the same and bought the ticket. Over the following days, I attempted to rationalise and justify my decision as being a good one. My first justification was that it was my hard-earned cash and I could do whatever I like with it. Unfortunately, this reasoning is very superficial, and its sparkle soon faded. My Mum’s words of wisdom came next: “You have to spend money to make money”. My spending was helping the local economy make money – I skilfully argued with myself – and you never know who I could meet there or what opportunity may come out of going. This reasoning was more plausible, but I was still yet to be fully convinced.

It was the English philosopher, John Stuart Mill (also a polymath), who assured me that my purchase was justified. Mill developed Jeremy Bentham’s greatest happiness principle to incorporate the idea of assessing happiness on its value and desirability. Bentham’s theory on utilitarianism was non-judgemental: it was not the quality of the thing that made you happy which counted because all preferences were rated equally. What only mattered was whether this thing also made most people happy too. To Bentham, the enjoyment of watching reality TV shows would be of the same value as the enjoyment of watching Shakespeare.

However, the idea of all preferences being equal raised moral questions: surely it would still be morally wrong for society to allow horrible goods e.g blood sports even if this pleased the greatest number in society? Mill tried to rectify such an outcome occurring in his essay Utilitarianism (1861) by developing the happiness principle on the basis of “higher and lower pleasures”: society does value one good over another, and that the higher pleasures are the ones which contribute to society’s greater good. Thus “higher pleasures” are goods which are more valuable or desirable; they appeal to our higher senses and faculties. Perhaps they are harder or more difficult to acquire, comprehend or grasp, but we know intrinsically that they raise the quality of our being.

To me, watching a Jazz concert is a higher pleasure, and ever since I started the Jazz appreciation course, I have begun to understand how technically difficult Jazz is and how creatively ingenious its musicians are. I think John Stuart Mill provides an excellent moral justification for me forking out more than I would expect to for a Jazz concert.

When caught in a position of living on a budget and trying to save for a rainy day, it is natural to give ourselves a hard time about spending money on a pleasure that may seem like a waste. Nevertheless, if this is a pleasure that cultivates our mind, which adds to our character and nobility (and in the grand of scheme of things, it is affordable), then we should be reluctant to deny ourselves such a pleasure.

Comparing ourselves: an exercise in futility

“We do not deserve our place of distribution of native endowments, any more than we deserve our initial starting point in society. That we deserve the superior character that enables us to make the effort to cultivate our abilities is also problematic; for such character depends in good part on fortunate family and social circumstances in early life for which we can claim no credit. The notion of desert does not apply here.”

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

I often compared myself to others, in looks and in intelligence. I am mixed race – Malaysian and Irish – yet I’m told that I don’t look very “Asian”. I have fair skin, I go red very easily, my hair is thick and curly. The few things that give away my Asian heritage are the shape of my eyes and my black hair.

I had a friend who was like me – half Asian and half Caucasian. She was perhaps what one would expect a mixed race woman of South East Asian and European origins to look like: very delicate features – almost feline – high cheekbones, straight dark hair, a slender figure. Everyone would comment on how exotic and beautiful she was. I always felt inadequate next to her. Plus, I was chubby so I was always known as the “fat one” and she the “pretty one”.

When I was studying to become a barrister, I constantly felt stupid next to my class mates. They seemed to understand the mechanics of the law so much quicker and better than I ever could. They could articulate complicated reasoning with such simplicity; they were able to excel in exams and competitions whilst at the same time landing themselves the top jobs.

Looks and intelligence were the areas where I compared myself to others the most. And I would say that most of us do the same.

I tried affirmations in the hope of eliminating my entrenched beliefs. But as I did so, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling any better about myself. I wasn’t ‘brighter and better‘ every day. In the morning, I didn’t ‘look in the mirror and see nothing but pure beauty‘ staring back at me. I felt less attractive and more stupid.

It looks like I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman cites a study by the psychologist Joanne Wood. Wood had an inkling that people who use positive affirmations tend to be those with low-self esteem. She was also under the impression that since affirmations were at odds with what these people really felt about themselves, repeating them would make them feel worse. The study proved her inkling right: that for those people with low self-esteem, positive affirmations produced the opposite effect.

Nonetheless, I carried on regardless: making more of an effort with my appearance; studying harder for my classes. I did not necessarily feel better; I just got on with it.

The nail was finally hit on the (my) head last year, when I did an online course on political philosophy with my Dad. In one particular lecture we learnt about the American philosopher John Rawls’ theory on moral desert and justice. He asserted that we cannot claim credit for our talents, it just so happens to be our good luck that we were born in good circumstances and that society at that moment places a high value on them. As he states, “No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favourable starting place in society.”

What John Rawls had said was liberating. The way that I am – my talents, how I look – are not my doing and whether they are prized or not are dependent on how society tends to value them at any given moment. This is the same for people who I thought were better looking or smarter than me: they were born that way, through no fault or doing of their own, and society just happened to appreciate more their attributes.

It was from this point that I could finally and fully accept my flaws and deficiencies for what they are. I stopped comparing myself to others because it appears to me that life is just one big lottery. I cannot change what I perceive to be are my limitations. Instead I can focus on how to maximise the attributes that I believe I have.

John Rawls believes that we should allow our talents to flourish. Yet, he powerfully asserts that justice and the good life lie not in whether we deserve the rewards for our talents, but rather in how we use them to help those less fortunate than us. The American philosopher Michael J. Sandel sums up perfectly in his book ‘Justice‘ the truth upon which Rawls’ theory of justice relies: “The way things are does not determine the way they ought to be.”

Let’s not forget it.

Identity as our moral starting point

In June 2003, I flew from Belfast to Washington D.C as part of a programme called the Washington Ireland Program for Service and Leadership (WIP). A programme that brings together young people from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to Washington D.C to work together, play together, break down prejudices and pre-conceived ideas about one another in the hope of building and sustaining peace in Ireland.

I always felt a bit different to the rest of the group. I am Irish-Malaysian. I was born in Ireland; I spent my childhood in Malaysia; my adolescence in England; and my young adulthood in Ireland. I found it hard to relate to the troubles of Northern Ireland and its relationship with the South. To boot, I have an English accent, which made me feel very self-conscious about having any claim to Ireland at all.

When I first came to Brussels, I was invited to a few events organised by the Irish Embassy. There, I met fellow Irish interns but I always felt uncomfortable being around them because I felt like a fake. When asked where I was from, I would say Dublin and name the area where I lived during my University years. I would then explain my accent, which ended up being a recount of my life in ten seconds. I always got the impression that they didn’t really believe that I was from Dublin. The truth is, I didn’t believe it either.

When I decided to not let things matter so much and be honest with myself, my Irish identity was one of the hardest things I had to grapple with and understand. The first thing I accepted was that I am not just Irish: I am Irish, I am Malaysian and I am – in a way – British too. Once I accepted that, I decided that I had every right to go to Irish events and to be considered Irish. But, I would be honest about who I was. Since taking this approach, I have felt more at ease and open at these events. I’ve made more Irish friends and I have felt – strangely – more Irish.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes about our nation’s history, culture, our ancestry and our family as constituting our moral starting point. He writes in his book After Virtue that all these circumstances and characteristics are in part – he quotes – “…what gives my life its own moral particularity“. It is from this moral starting point that we can move forward and figure out “the good life”.

My ancestors, my mother, my father, my birthplace, my nations’ histories and cultures all provide the framework of who I am. As I flip through my WIP scrapbook of ten years ago, I finally understand this touching note from one of my classmates given to me just before leaving D.C: “You have an amazing story – let the world hear it!! Be a foreign ambassador for us and Ireland. You go girl.”

As we continue to understand who we are and where we come from, we continue to move forward in figuring out our concept of the good life.