Reading Classics – How Unchanging Stories Change Us

Picture this – you’re curled up under your blanket with your favourite Dickens book and a mug of hot chocolate, it’s raining outside, and soon you find yourself in 19th century London, in the best and worst of times.

Other than providing this service of teleportation, fiction books are also known to increase empathy in their readers. The front seat view of a character’s struggles, a character whose nature may be disagreeable with ours if we were to meet them in real life without knowing their thought processes and reasoning, compels us to think of them as complex, multidimensional beings with opinions that have been shaped by their experiences, as we delve page by page into their complicated, unique story.

In the medical profession, seeing patients suffering on a daily basis while being tired and overworked, a feeling of apathy and dissociation may take you over. Placing yourself in another’s shoes becomes exceedingly difficult when there is an endless line of shoes, all waiting for you to step in. This burnout can feel quite discouraging and makes it difficult to connect with a patient as a person.

With this in mind, To Be Human – the humanities club of KMC, Manipal, organised a workshop on Reading Classics – how unchanging stories change us.

It was a session by Dr Sudhamshu from the Department of Humanities, MIT. The discussion started with the comparison of a 19th-century novel, which places a character in a series of situations often beyond their control, and often unfavourable, to a 20th-century novel, wherein the focus shifts to the internal conflicts of a character and their sense of self.

He continued on to discuss excerpts from works by various authors, such as Sartre and  Walt Whitman. The discussion ended with talking about When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi,  an autobiography of a young doctor who gets lung cancer, a story almost Grecian in its tragedy.

The power of books to go within you and inspire compassion and understanding was perhaps best understood by Virginia Woolf who, in The Common Reader, wrote, ‘…how great a power the body of a literature possesses to impose itself: how it will not suffer itself to be read passively, but takes us and reads us; flouts our preconceptions; questions principles which we had got into the habit of taking for granted, and, in fact, splits us into two parts as we read, making us, even as we enjoy, yield our ground or stick to our guns.’

– Written by Vagisha Dahiya

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