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Education Week: Life-Changing Literature

College of Humanities professors lecture on the power of a good book.

Education Week at BYU lasted from August 21–25, 2023. Robert Colson, Dawan Coombs, Aaron Eastley, Dennis Cutchins, and Jane Hinckley each presented on the power of literature to teach and inspire readers.

Tolkien and Lewis: The Lords of Language
By Garrett Gunnell

A small hobbit house with yellow door and garden.
Photo by Creator: Florian Bugiel

C. S. Lewis once said, “Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” That’s certainly an uncommon sentiment, particularly in the time that Lewis lived. However, despite the popular notion that fantasy stories cater to the immature and childish, fantasy authors C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both spent their professional lives proving that fantasy stories can be just as deep and insightful as any other genre. In his Education Week presentation, Associate Professor Aaron Eastley (English) described five beliefs Tolkien and Lewis shared that guided their writing and allowed them to create works of art that still resonate with audiences today.

Eastley listed the following five principles:

  1. Fairytales are not just for children.
  2. Stories, like music, can create moods that inspire imagination.
  3. An entire world can come from a single word.
  4. We learn best from stories by living them.
  5. Many of the best stories bring us closer to Christ.

As Eastley discussed the points, he described how each indicates the value of fantasy novels, or “fairy-stories.” Quoting Tolkien, Eastley said, “Fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting.” Tolkien’s and Lewis’ commitment to writing about simple truths—such as religion, death and immortality, forgiveness, and friendship—has ensured that both The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia have remained timeless, despite their fantastical settings and content.

Eastley closed his presentation quoting Lewis’ review of The Lord of the Rings, saying, “We know at once that [the book] has done things to us. We are not quite the same men.” Eastley concluded that Tolkien’s and Lewis’ books’ ability to change their readers marks the true value of a fantasy novel.

Loving Our Neighbors That We Haven’t Met
By Emma Rostrom

Gifting a warm plate of cookies to the new family next door represents a typical example of neighborly kindness, but “neighbors” don't only include those who live one house over. Fulfilling the second great commandment includes acknowledging the lives and experiences of all of God’s children. During his Education Week presentation on August 23, 2023, Associate Professor Robert Colson (Postcolonial Studies, Modernism) shared a list of five novels that changed his perspective on his neighbor.

Colson first cited Keith Oatley, the director of the Cognitive Science Program at the University of Toronto, who said that when we read fiction, “we can start to extend ourselves into situations we have never experienced, feel for people very different from ourselves, and begin to understand such people in ways we may never have thought possible.”

Artistic rendition of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Photo by Creator: Library of Congress via

Colson then introduced the following fiction novels and how they have helped him better appreciate and empathize with his neighbor: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958), To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927), Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988), Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004), and Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017).

Each novel contained stories and lessons about people in different situations from his own. Speaking of Nervous Conditions, the story of a Rhodesian girl’s pursuit of education, Colson said, “This novel reminds me all the time of how privileged many of us are to have access to education . . . and the kinds of barriers, particularly for women and girls in other places, to accessing education.”

Throughout his presentation, Colson referred to the Good Samaritan, who set aside any preconceived notions to aid the wounded Jew on the road to Jericho. The Good Samaritan cared about a man he hadn’t ever met, and so can all followers of Christ by learning about and loving their neighbors of different backgrounds from their own.

Five Lessons from Five Books
By Lydia Hall

What do cowboys, ghosts, and Henry David Thoreau have in common? They've all changed Professor Dennis Cutchins’ (American Literature, Adaptation Studies) life. On August 24th, during Education Week, Cutchins shared five books that have profoundly changed the course of his life and what they taught him. His list included Shane by Jack Schaefer, The Jolly Corner by Henry James, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, and Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

Cutchins highlighted The Jolly Corner, a ghost story where the main character, Spencer Brydon, is haunted by the cruel and angry specter of who Brydon could have been. The book ends happily, but the story continued to affect Cutchins long after he finished reading it. He said, “It dramatizes the fact that every day we make decisions that make us who we are.”

Illuminated ferris wheel at night.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Moving from fiction to poetry, Cutchins’ next recommendation was Walt Whitman’s book Leaves of Grass, which begins with the poem “Song of Myself.” Whitman’s poem focuses on how all people are equal, mentioning brides and prostitutes in the same sentence and humanizing madmen with tender observations. Cutchins grew emotional as he said, “Whitman had an almost unbounded store of charity for the people around him. Reading his poems tends to infect me with that same kind of charity.”

In Cutchins’ final selection, Something Wicked this Way Comes, a sinister carnival comes to town, preying on the weaknesses and fears of the townspeople. The protagonists, Will and Jim, witness the disappearance of the unhappy people who visited the carnival. Cutchins concluded his talk: “Bradbury showed me that good and evil are not abstract philosophical concepts, but real and powerful forces that are at work around us all the time.”

These five books may not change your life, but then again, maybe they will.

Information Literacy: A Truth Universally Acknowledged
By Lauren Walker

Painting of Jane Austen.
Photo by PhoebeZu via Flickr

People have appreciated the literary genius and wittiness of Jane Austen since the publication of her books—but what can we learn from her in the modern day? In Adjunct Faculty Jane Hinckley’s (18th-Century British Women Writers and Artists) August 22 Education Week lecture, she discussed how Jane Austen’s works teach us to evaluate all available evidence before making assumptions—a necessary principle for media literacy today.

Austen was well known for including the revolutionary philosophy of empiricism in her works. Empiricism, a term coined by John Locke, states that one must use their senses to determine reality, and a study of Austen’s work reveals that she firmly believed in finding solid evidence to prove assumptions.

Hinckley provided examples of empiricism in Pride and Prejudice. When Austen wrote about her characters using words such as “guess,” “perceive,” and “infer,” she was foreshadowing their perceptions changing when they encounter more evidence. By extension, as the characters encounter more evidence, so do the readers. So not only do the characters change the way they see each other, but the reader does as well. Hinckley said, “The data hasn’t changed, but the reader’s perception of that data has changed.”

Hinckley also mentioned how the main character of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth, changes her opinion of Mr. Darcy, a man she found unpleasant and arrogant until she witnessed how kindly he treated others, particularly his servants. As Hinckley noted, Austen demonstrated through this example that, “the challenge in Pride and Prejudice, and really in our lives, is how to bridge the gap between perception and reality.”

Hinckley taught that in the digital age of rapidly spreading fake news, we need information literacy to discern between truthful and fake sources. She concluded that everyone can benefit from attentively reading Pride and Prejudice, as it teaches us to evaluate our sources. Next time you need help discerning fact from fiction, pick up Pride and Prejudice—who knows, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth may just have some tips for you.

Top Teen Books with Messages of Hope
By Emma Rostrom

Teenager reading a book on her bed.

As President Thomas S. Monson said, “We are the product of all we read, all we do, all we hear, and all we think.” With thousands of books published every year, Latter-day Saints may wonder which of those books contain uplifting messages that line up with gospel teachings.

Consuming uplifting literature is especially important for kids and teens as they navigate the complexities of adolescence. During her Education Week presentation on August 22, 2023, Associate Professor Dawan Coombs (Reading and Literature Pedagogy) shared a list of middle grade and young adult novels with messages of hope; her recommendations help parents and mentors who face the challenge of finding enjoyable, age-appropriate literature for the youth in their lives.

Coombs values adolescent literature because of its ability to help young people discover themselves in the stories they read while they deal with the difficulties of growing up. She spoke of her own nieces and nephews and her desire for them to explore their identity while reading worthwhile stories. Coombs said, “There are wonderful, great books out there. And when we're able to put these books in the hands of kids, we're able to empower them.”

Her recommendations, which spanned different genres and publication dates, included When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009), The Labors of Hercules Beal by Gary D. Schmidt (2023), Lovely War by Julie Berry (2019), Scythe by Neal Shusterman (2016), and March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (2013).

Coombs selected each book for the uplifting themes found within, such as joy, endurance, and agency. She hopes that her recommendations will help kids and teens “to think about how to make decisions themselves . . . and ultimately, how they're able to find hope and happiness in a world that is a tricky place to exist sometimes.”

Learn more about Education Week.