For class, my professor challenged us all to read a how to book on evaluating different forms of media- whether art, movies, literature, or poetry.  I read Richard Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor.

This helped me focus on the broader scope of what is at play when I read.  For example, consider what genre you are drawing from- is it allegory, prose, poetry, satire, etc.?  What might some of the elements symbolize in the book?  And then as I stepped back to consider the question, Why read literature?  I was helped by my professor’s response: read for entertainment- because you enjoy reading.  It’s a toold to help us teach and help us learn.  And it’s helpful to understand the present time, past times, and what vantage point the author is coming from.  

To demonstrate how this has helped me, I’ll explain a few areas I noticed when watching the movie Amazing Grace.               

The main idea is repeated-that Wilberforce persevered to end the slave trade. Right after the Parliament passesa bill that would effectively stop 80% of the slave trade, Wilberforce is seenin the darkness of his house, breaking glass. His wife, fully pregnant, runs down thestairs. He crawls to her and they begindiscussing their child who, she says, will play with him in the garden. In the nextscene the father runs through the garden with his boy on his shoulders,laughing. Then his wife runs to them and tellsWilberforce he must come quickly. He appears in front of his friend,William Pitt, who informs him that soon power will shift and his abolition billwill pass. The next scene, the Parliament is insession and overwhelmingly approves his abolition bill.

            To move from the bill stopping 80% of the trade to the final bill abolishing all of slavery, the director simply doesn’t flash us from success in Parliament to success two years later.  He shows that Wilberforce’s wife is expecting.  Then she talks of him playing with the child in the garden which demonstrates a future time and new birth.  The darkness after the passage of the first bill is drowned out by the singing and laughing with the child two years later in the garden.  Instead of constructing a sheer gulf between the approval one bill and the final abolition bill, the director walks us along a graded path, easing us, through the darkness of night, through the child, through the light and joy of the garden, through the visit to William Pitt, that old power is waning and that new life has begun.    Another structural element present is that of allusions- references to other forms of literature or other works.  For example, symbols within the movie can be read different ways depending on the background of the listener.  In one scene the former slave Oloudah Equiano, when asked how he survived his trafficking across the ocean replied, “Your life is a thread.  It breaks or it doesn’t.”  As I heard that, I ran a quick internal check of what it meant for life to be “a thread.”  In Greek mythology, the three sisters of fate determined life span.  The first sister drew out the thread of life, the second sister measured it and the third sister cut it.  Therefore, it quite possibly meant that the fates had not decided for Equiano to go yet; his thread of life had not reached its end.  Yet another way to understand this thinking is understanding more of Equiano’s background.  In West African thinking, likely Equiano’s origin due to his history and accent, not all questions are returned with linear answers.  So when Equiano is asked how he survived, he doesn’t simply say he adjusted his hips to keep them from dislocating or collected droplets of sweat to keep himself hydrated or fell back on some other instinct.  He replies that his life simply did not break.  It seems that, here too, the element of fate is involved, though coming from a different cultural landscape.  And yet even modern molecular biology and the cellular components it elucidates, coming into existence more than a hundred years after this story, can enrich Equiano’s analogy.  This understanding of life as a thread has to do with cell replication.  Inside the nucleus of each human cell, DNA is stored which serves as the genetic blueprint of life.  At the end of DNA is a region of repeating DNA, called telomeres, of which a fraction get lopped off following each replication.  The DNA is getting cleaved and some scientists speculate that this action plays a role in our aging and dying.  Whether or not this theory holds, it remains established that though DNA is wound up in the nucleus, when it is unwound, it becomes a long strand- like a thread.  Even the term biologists use to indicate DNA- single-stranded double-stranded, leading-strand, lagging-strand, etc.-alludes to the idea of a thread.  And encoded in each thread of DNA, fates are determined.  They predispose one to early mortality or to chemical dependency or to immune-deficiency and numbers of other fates.  Each of these frameworks helps explain Equiano’s reply.  Although they were likely not the writer’s intent, they demonstrate that literature makes a thread whose ideas and allusions span generations and cultures.  Why have some of the strongest and ablest perished in their prime while some of the sick and diseased have continued to live has not been answered on a linear scale.  How did Equiano survive when often two-thirds or more of the slaves would die?  His answer points to fate.              And so literature is not just a form relevant to a select few.  It has and does make up the culture we live in.  Understanding its techniques and methods enhances our enjoyment of literature.  And just like a basic understanding of framing architecture does not denude the beauty in well-built houses like a dissection does to the life of an animal, so too a basic understanding of literary elements does not rob us of the different components that give life to stories.  These basic elements enhance the experience of plays and music, movies and novels.  They are devices to teach and learn, applicable in the sciences and essential in the arts.