Last Nov. 8, I was fortunate enough to attend the awarding of the honorary doctorate in literature degree to Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, at De La Salle University Manila.
He fondly recalled that during his younger days he was educated by La Sallian brothers, and one of them, Brother Justiniano, taught him how to read. Llosa then proceeded to tell us about the significance of reading and of the power of literature to change us and grant us a deeper and broader understanding of ourselves and the world.
Here are some of the learnings I’ve gleaned from listening to his inspiring speech. Unfortunately, I did not have a recorder with me, and so the following account is a mixture of his words and my words as well.
1) Good books enable us to overcome prejudices. It is within the pages of a book that we will find characters and situations that are hauntingly familiar to us. According to Llosa, stories make us realize that there is “the equality of human experiences”. We are not alone, and at the heart of it all, we are all the same. Think about it, have we not all felt love, despair, hope, jealousy, or happiness? Have we not all witnessed the miracle of life, the silence of death, the victory of the human spirit against all odds, or the tragedy of loss so great that it leaves us feeling numb? It is because of this equality of human experience that we are reminded of the truth that — we are the same.
2) Good books allow us to access civic and spiritual values. Books are avenues to explore and understand other people’s beliefs, ideas, philosophies, faith, and opinions. It is by reading about other cultures and other lives that we learn to understand other people, and in the process, we are also able to reflect on our own values and beliefs.
3) Good books develop in us a dissatisfaction with the way the world is, and it also develops in us a hope that society will be able to transform for the better. I think that statement is already self-explanatory.
One of the remarkable things that Llosa said that captured my attention was this : Reading makes people think, and in the process, it critically engages and “trains citizens of a free and democratic society.” He also said that, “It is not exceptional that regimes in history have tried to control human lives and are always suspicious of literature … because literature is a vehicle that carried the fears and the realities of the citizens and individuals.”
I was able to quickly jot down what he said about this, and I think, if I did miss out a few details here and there, they are quite minor and could be excused. So here is what Llosa said:
“In free society there is an idea that literature is just an entertainment. This is a big mistake and a dangerous mistake. Yes, it is an entertainment, but at the same time it is also a kind of knowledge of the world and human beings that, you cannot learn from other fields. Literature teaches us that we have living experiences, we learn to enter into the intimacy of a culture, and the personality of a human being — allowing us not just to learn who we are as human beings, but also the most secret aspects of our personality — our feelings, our passions that determine our behavior. So, we must read and we must teach the new generation how to read. We must convince our children that reading is a way for them to become better citizens and to face challenges that they would encounter in their existence.”
I end this article with those powerful words. I hope that this piece would inspire you to read, and while you’re at it, why don’t you start with some of Llosa’s novels: “The Storyteller” or “The War of the End of the World”, which won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature.