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The Daily Illini

Look for guidance in literature

By Harrison Lindholm, Columnist

In the present times, we read more than ever before. We constantly access a stream of information for hours, day after day, through our superfluous technologies. Most of this reading, however, contains inconsequential words. Because of this, reading loses its role as the beneficial tool it can be for individual development.

Spending extended periods of time reading well-recognized novels provides truth to human life that no experiment or theory can. Stories are a much more accessible way for the average person to be educated. Reading important novels opens our minds and develops our humanitarian interests.

I speak from my experience this past summer when I delved into some of the greatest novels to come out of 19th century Russia. I felt that I learned more important lessons this summer than I have in my three years of college. Leo Tolstoy’s great intellect and insights forced me to challenge all of my world views.

For instance, in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Tolstoy’s story of a middle-aged man who lays dying, Tolstoy challenges the notion of what makes a “good life.” Does climbing the corporate ladder really matter in your life? What is the best way to live? Tolstoy’s protagonist wrestles with these essential questions in his last hours. Reading “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” gives a reader much to ponder.

Another of Tolstoy’s novels, “Resurrection,” tells the reader of the many horrors of imperial Russia on the eve of its famous Bolshevik Revolution. The novel depicts scene after scene of the system failing due to the indifference of the people in power.

The story follows an aristocratic artist who tries to fix his errant past after discovering a girl who he raped has had his child. Through a long chain of events, she became a prostitute who has been condemned to exile in Siberia. His action was the catalyst that caused the girl’s downfall and eventually her destitution.  

The rest of the book follows the protagonist’s efforts to “act the truth.” The dark novel questions the foundations of society and every person’s role in it. Tolstoy picks apart the hypocrisy of his own class: The government officials who yield immense profit from little work, the soldiers who follow clearly foolish orders and the general indifference of the lazy upper class towards the struggle of the common man. If nothing else, “Resurrection” will not let a reader go on pretending all is well.

These timeless lessons are relevant even today. The people in distress now, such as the millions lacking power in Puerto Rico or the families grieving in Las Vegas, are all our responsibility. As fellow humans, we are as responsible for their well-being as we would be for similar catastrophes in our closer communities.

Just as the struggle of a Russian peasant in Tolstoy’s time was partially the rich’s responsibility, so is the struggle of today’s lower class the partial responsibility of the wealthy.

As college students, some of our classes may include dense, exceedingly long readings of dry theory or allegorical tales. They may seem boring and outdated, but they contain truths that apply to all of us and inspire our world view, if we give them a fair chance.

Harrison is a junior in ACES.

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