Primo Levi, C. S. Lewis, and Summer Reading

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Photo credit  anna burchietti

In his preface to If This Is a Man, Primo Levi writes

…many people – many nations – can find themselves believing, more or less consciously, that ‘every stranger is an enemy.’ For the most part, this conviction lies burning in the mind like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and is not the basis of a system of thought. But when this happens, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, stands the [camp]. It is the product of a conception of the world carried to its logical consequences . . . The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister signal of danger.

Levi is describing the burning hatred for the European Jewish community stoked by the poisonous re-imagining of them as sub-human obstacles to racial purity. He is also alluding to the dangerous, but relatively common, fear that many humans have of one another. Another race, another class, another gender, a citizen of another country, a member of another party or faction. Far too often we humans understand, even defined, ourselves in opposition to others.

The efforts to overcome this, especially in schools, are laudable though often ineffectual. Perhaps one of the least effective and potentially dangerous ways some teachers attempt to engage students is through “living history” in which students dress up and “act like” someone from the past to “really understand” what is was like. As if folks from an earlier era walked around thinking how “exciting” it was to be wearing a wig and living in the 1640s. I would suggest that instead of playing what is, in essence, dress ups we encourage ourselves and our children to read widely. If you want to foster empathy in yourself and your children don’t buy them a powdered wig, enroll them in a summer reading program.

One of the things that reading offers us is the opportunity to overcome our innate biases against others and see the world through their eyes. In his book An Experiment in Criticism, the writer C.S. Lewis argues that in reading great literature

I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

I’m not so naive as to suggest that reading widely always makes one a better or more ethical person, there are plenty of counter examples. I am suggesting that as a way to develop empathy and compassion it beats a costume box.

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