Literature has the power to change lives. I know, because it changed mine. I grew up in a religious household, and attended a religious high school (Baptist) and a religious college (Presbyterian). And I did so willingly: I firmly believed everything I was taught.
But like most believers, I had questions. These were of various origins—theological, cultural, personal. But having grown up in a bit of a hermetic world (I hesitate to use the word "repressive," because it didn't feel so to me, and because the word "repressive" seems to me to carry now the associations of all those caricatured fathers and headmasters and priests you see in poorly-made movies beating—or at least scolding—the creativity out of otherwise free-spirited children), literature was my way of encountering new worlds and perspectives different from mine. I particularly remember a trip I took to Japan for a summer when I was twenty. During the days I roamed old temples in the mountains, or perused record shops in Kichijoji. I listened to the stories of my grandparents or hung out with my cousins and her friends, well-heeled Tokyo urbanites unlike anyone I'd met up until then. But on the trains or after lunch or in the middle of the night I devoured Anna Karenina, The Grapes of Wrath, whatever paperbacks I'd been able to stuff into my American-sized luggage. And these books opened my eyes.
The experience of reading these books was a little bit like, well, having an encounter with the world's chaos. These authors weren't telling me what to believe. Rather, they were simply presenting people who lived and breathed in times and places different from mine, and they brought up problems and questions of life for examination. What I was struck with most of all was the terrific breadth of human existence. This was coupled with the fact that I was in Japan, a country known for its indifference (indeed, at times, its vociferous opposition) to the influence of Christianity. Perhaps being far away from home and feeling as if I could allow my mind to roam a little more freely, combined to move my questions from the category of curiosity to that of doubt.
This is not to say that an encounter with literature necessitates a subsequent turning away from religion. Tobias Wolff's recent wonderful short essay "Winter Light" (in the New Yorker, as of this writing still available for viewing on their web site) illustrates this well. In it, he describes as a young man seeing a Bergman film which had religion as its subject. Beside him sat a friend. The effect of that one film (and the priest's commentary that followed) on the two men was diametrically opposite: one was made hungry for religion, the other hardened against it, at least in that moment. This divergent reaction to the same piece of art is one everyone has seen. For me, the result of reading these books during my summer in Japan—and ever since—has been an opening up of my mind to considering life outside what I'd grown up with.
What is incontrovertibly true about literature is that it gives you access to the lives and thoughts of characters who are different from you, to see beyond the costumes and the unusual sights and sounds and get straight to the what's-at-stake of a human being's existence. This is the value that I've found and continue to find in literature. To believe in the possibility—if one writes as well as one possibly can, something that is worth a reader taking time out of his or her day to consider—of speaking to someone else's life in the way these books spoke to mine, is what continues to motivate me to write, even if the road is long and the successes modest.