Without trying to be a historical document, novels can reflect the author’s worldview, values and beliefs – either overtly or in between the lines.
Dr. Erin Kappeler, assistant professor of English at Missouri State University, talks about using literature as a lens into the past, present and future.
“Literature is such a great way to understand more about history, more about culture, more about just the experiences of living in the world that might not look like your own experiences of living in the world,” she said. “I think especially today, it can be really easy to think that our political situation is totally new, nothing like this has ever happened before. Going back and reading literature from previous times can remind us there have been lots of moments of really intense polarization, and it can be helpful to see how people processed moments like this before.”
One example she mentions is “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Kappeler taught this book recently. She says that in the form of an engaging fictional tale, “The Sympathizer” gives readers a look at the other side of the Vietnam War – a side most Americans know even less about.
Hulu’s adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a book originally published in 1985, has become a pop culture phenomenon.
“Literary authors are really especially equipped to help us think about contemporary problems,” said Kappeler. “Margaret Atwood has famously explained that everything that happens in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is something that has happened historically already, and so she’s presenting to us kind of our culture through a lens darkly.”
Kappeler recommends a companion read for those who read “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“There is a book called ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin. And it’s a book about a well-to-do woman who has been socialized to just get married and have children, and that’s what she does. There comes a point in her life where she becomes dissatisfied and kind of wonders ‘what else is there in the world? What else could I have done?’”
When you’re dealing with difficult text, foreign dialect, unique storytelling or unfamiliar geography, Kappeler says to use the tool that is probably already in your pocket.
“Just looking up words is super helpful, but also I think it’s really useful to just get context, so going on Wikipedia or just looking on Goodreads or BookRags or one of these sites that gives you summaries. Then you can at least have a sense of ‘I think I understand what this book is trying to do. Now I can get through say the difficult vocabulary or the complicated storytelling.’”