Column: Literature teaches us to be more human

Nolan Ryan

When I read Shakespeare's “Hamlet,” I’m struck by the title character's attempts to exercise control over others. Then I realize: I do the same thing in different ways. I selfishly take up time from friends; I nag at family; I get impatient while waiting in line for coffee. 

Hamlet shows me, in a negative way, what it looks like to be human.

Some authors show us truths about humanity through the eyes of an individual. Reading books with such characters would benefit society in a time when we are increasingly focused on what sets us apart rather than what we have in common.

Unfortunately, the number of adults reading books has decreased over the last decade. We live in a fast-paced, tech-driven world, rarely – if ever – setting aside time to read good literature. Even avid readers like myself struggle with this. But there’s good news.

Nolan Ryan

Pew Research studies from 2016 and 2018 say younger adults like me are consistently reading more than adults over the age of 50. Eighty percent of adults between 18 and 29 said they had read at least one book within the past year, while 70 percent of 50-65-year-olds said the same.

But more adults and children alike should take time to read great literature.

A certain type of literary character, called an “everyman,” is especially useful in presenting the common struggles of humanity because their stories are our stories.

Anthony Esolen, an English professor at Thomas More College and translator of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” said in an email that literature with this universal character never should be viewed as embracing individuality; rather, we see humanity through the eyes of one representative person.

In his “Divine Comedy,” for example, Dante tells of his fictional journey through the afterlife, demonstrating what he believed were important realities of the Christian spiritual life that impacted all of humanity. 

"The power of...all stories that give us an Everyman is its universal appeal," Esolen says. "Jack Hawkins in 'Treasure Island' is Everyboy. Anne of Green Gables is Everygirl. Dante is Everysinner."

Andrew Simmons, a high school English teacher from California and frequent contributor to The Atlantic believes readers, as individuals, can learn from these representative characters.

“Through the experiences of characters, students have the power to work through challenges in their own lives,” he says.

If we can see how our daily challenges are the same for others, we can become better at empathizing with each other. These "everyman" characters help us in that regard.

“There’s comfort in knowing you’re not the only one feeling something,” says Jacob Mikula, a 9th- and 10th-grade English teacher at Detroit Cristo Rey High School.

Mikula sometimes has to work harder to help his students make connections between themselves and these classic characters, as opposed to more modern characters. He will assign books with more easily recognizable, contemporary characters, but it's still important for them to read classic works, he says.

We can certainly enjoy reading about superheroes and fantasy heroes, he says, but books with those characters are “devoid of real world problems.” Characters that represent humanity present us with trials we all face in some way.

Sharing a character’s experience through reading gives us a guide for experiences in the “real world.” Because these characters show us what humans have in common, literature can help tear down barriers in our divided society. 

“We all have the same origin and the same end, characterized by the same troubles, the same loves and losses, the same longings,” Esolen says.

Nolan Ryan is a summer intern at The Detroit News and will be a junior this fall at Hillsdale College.