Literature and the everyday

By Rosemary Ross Johnston (Please note: Some parts of this appeared in an earlier blog for the Australian Association for Educational Research 

Contemporary research is increasingly showing the benefits of reading.

Such benefits – exposure to unremitting flows of ideas and multiple stories – extend way beyond the conventional; they include benefits to health, wellbeing and creativity. A recent article in The Guardian featured research showing that the one thing creative people have in common is that they are readers.

The benefits spill across disciplines. Bob Dylan, in his long-awaited Nobel Prize in Literature Lecture, noted the significance to his songwriting of the books he read whilst at school. He mentions Don Quixote, A Tale of Two Cities, Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe, and describes at some length the influences on his music of Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Ulysses, from which he quotes:

Sing to me, O Muse,

And through me tell the story.

Dylan notes the importance of the great themes of literature; he says they have given him both ‘standards to measure things by’, as well as ‘principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world’.

Never have we needed an informed view of the world more than we do now, beset as we are by avalanches of social and other media, and with claims of ‘post-truth’. We are living in a connected environment (I’m writing this from Dubrovnik, in Croatia; yesterday I was in Montenegro, and in a day or so I start the journey home via London to Sydney), but we are certainly not living out – or living up to – the ideals of a global community.

And we are kidding ourselves if we think that living in faster proximity to each other brings us closer together in thinking. Surely recent terrible and gut-wrenching events have demonstrated this. (And what a tragic overlay they have given to Wordsworth’s words: ‘Dull would he be of soul who could pass by …’)[i].

Croatia and Montenegro, their forebear Yugoslavia and their relations, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, are part of what were commonly called the ‘Balkan States’, places that seemed – and were – a world away from the girl who long ago studied the ubiquitous ‘Causes of the First World War’. That very name – the Balkans – seemed somehow so dark and forbidding to me then, harsh and stormy; it’s hard to understand as I look out now at the exquisite beauty of the Adriatic.

Reading beyond the textbooks and beyond one’s culture helps to create an informed view. Arguably Dylan’s reading is all part of a Western tradition (although they do come from different countries and periods). However he says that their powerful themes and ideas ‘worked their way into most of my songs’; that is, they are interpreted into a different genre – music, in a propinquity that includes Buddy Holly, Country and Western, Rhythm and Blues, and Rock ’n’ Roll. He has created a medium of expression that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has a cross-cultural and inter-generic currency. His music and lyrics have been inspired, in his words, by a deep engagement with reading.

The point is that in this oddly changing, differently configured world, we need to read. Our children need to read – to explore sameness and difference, ambiguity, and, if you like, the idea of that Oxford word of the year, ‘post-truth’. Uninformed impressions are not only often wrong, but dangerous.

As Dylan points out, the intensive study of rich texts has made available to him a way of thinking that has enabled and indeed inspired him to translate literary experience into the rhythms of everyday life – being caught in traffic for example, and having (like Ulysses), trouble getting home. There is no high-brow/low-brow distinction in the metaphors and allegories that this reading has afforded him.

Reading can lift us into sharing global ideals – and we are curiously bereft of ideals at present. They seem too hard to achieve: really caring for each other, authentically wanting the best for each other. Corny perhaps but I want to believe that this is what we all want – that this is indeed a truth, and not post-truth.

And this is one of the greatest gifts that reading gives us. It gets us into the mind of another person, who may be separated from us by time, geography and culture. One of my first school-day ventures into such travel through space and time was reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; another was picking up at a fete an old copy of Coonardoo, by Katharine Susannah Prichard.

Deep literacy

This was the beginning for me of what I call deep literacy – literacy that takes us way beyond skills but builds on and through them to influence how we respond to others – especially different others. I describe this in Australian Literature for Young People as using subjunctive modes of thinking, and recognising and respecting ‘the truth of the other’.

What exactly does that mean?

It is more than putting oneself in the place of the other (important as that is). It means not simply ‘How would I feel if it were me?’ but ‘How does he feel because he is he?’ or ‘How does she feel because she is she?’

Deep literacy is a continuous process; it evolves and thickens the more we read and are exposed to the minds (and as Martha Nussbaum says the ‘souls’) of others, and the more we engage with the world. It shifts boundaries and extrapolates moral and ethical understandings of self and others, of the implications of ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. It is democratic. It promotes wise responses to difference and hesitates to attach simplistic labels.

Deep literacy is an elongation of mind, and mindfulness, and mind-fullness. It profoundly influences personal and communal behaviours.

So, back to Dylan and his lyrics, which were recognised by the Nobel Committee as literature – poetry.  As I have written in several other places (including a blog for the Australian Association for Research in Education[ii]), poetry[iii] exploits and liberates all the resources of words – their sound and look and rhythms and rhymes and assonances, their capacity for ambiguity and tagging others. It uses words like Russian dolls: open up one word and another one tumbles out, scattering other images along the way.

Poetry plays with the ways words are used against each other, the way juxtapositions can ignite complexity. Consider Paolo Totaro’s cry against war when a child picks up something that looks like a pomegranate: ‘Where did it come from, that winsome hand-grenade?’

This odd placement of words (‘winsome’ doesn’t usually associate with a deadly device, but transports us not only into the child’s eyes but into those of a despairing adult), was described by Shklovsky as a sort of ‘roughening’ and ‘impeding’ of language. It startles, and makes us stop to think.

Poetry is like a theorem; a few words can express a deep thought. Consider the following:


This world of dew

is but a world of dew,

and yet … oh, and yet.

Koyabayashi Issa (1763–1828)

The words are so simple, we know what each one means. But what is this famous haiku actually saying? It feels repetitive, unfinished. It’s like saying an apple is an apple, and the ‘and yet’ repeated at the end means – what? Is this a contradiction – a post-truth?

These words stand on the surface of a complex thought, above not just one idea but many (philosophical, creative, intellectual, universal, particular). We know what ‘dew’ is: the dictionary says it is ‘moisture condensed from the atmosphere especially at night’. But this simple definition unravels into other ideas pertaining to moisture: water, morning, dawn. These in turn tumble into thoughts about dawn as being a new day, as being either a fresh start or a despairing start (or both), and moisture and water as both that which assuages thirst and as the moisture of tears and sweat, sorrow and exhaustion, or sometimes of great happiness and pleasure.

So, almost subliminally, this invites the reader to take a thought-plunge into both the profound delights and the profound sadness of the world and indeed of human existence. And whichever way we read this, as delight or sadness, or both, or neither, there is always the ‘and yet’, the something else, the other side, the perhaps holy or perhaps unholy concomitance.

Our technological future will flourish in a creative and culturally rich climate. The same topics that fascinate and entice poets are those that fascinate and entice scientists. I love the work of Brian Greene, Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson. As Dylan does, they all use ‘story’ to talk out/sing out their complex messages.

Greene is an astrophysicist at Columbia who is studying time and the nature of reality. Time, he says, ‘is in the eye of the beholder.’ His work is the stuff of storytellers – he talks about black holes as possible ‘gateways to other universes’ – and he believes in the deep connections between science and the arts and philosophy and spirit. Indeed he is currently working with a rap artist, and rap of course is a mix of poetry and music. Greene writes that science is shifting from what he calls ‘the outskirts of culture’ into the heart of culture.

We are living in a world that values creativity and minds that can slide across disciplines – not only interdisciplinary but transdisciplinary. The Nobel citation for Dylan’s prize read: ‘… for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’

I am currently working on a paper about possible future directions for the Humanities, and am thinking, simply, that the essence of the Humanities is just that – our human-ness, our intimate humanity, our intimacy with humanity. In the midst of difference, this is our profound similarity.

Looking out again at the Adriatic – watching local children dive into the clean clear waters, shining out, in Hopkins’ beautiful image, like ‘shook foil’ in pellucid splashes of emerald and olive within the blue. They are pure of limb, vigorous, and full of the joy of being together and playing together.

They could be my sons swimming in the waters of Sydney’s northern beaches. They could be my grandsons.

Rosemary Ross Johnston is the author of – Australian Literature for Young People

Australian Literature of Young People


[i] William Wordsworth’s famous sonnet:

 Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 William Wordsworth

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

[ii] See

[iii] Paolo Totaro, ‘A Quality of Daring’.

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