The Copeland Memorial Library was the perfect place for a shy girl to linger and imagine herself transported far away from the dusty, windswept plains of middle America. The library was made out of Kansas limestone, which kept it cool and dry in the summer, and along with the book stacks, there was a “social” room with a fireplace and surely the only Steinway grand piano for miles around. I felt like Van Cliburn playing it.
I did not sound like him.
The library was where I read “J.B.” by Archibald MacLeish, and sort of understood what it was about. It was where I researched my high school essay on “Sikkim” and hung out with Emily Dickinson and Henry James and, most thrillingly, D.H. Lawrence.
I don’t know if Clarence Copeland, who made his fortune in the railroad business in New York, and who donated the money for the library, had any real idea of the influence that library would have on my, and many others’, lives. I do know without it, my life would have been much different.
Seth Lerer knows the transformative power of literature and art and music. Lerer, a noted literary critic, is dean of arts and humanities and Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego. He was in Missoula recently to give the last talk in this year’s President’s Lecture Series at the University of Montana. In an era when technology is king, Lerer is a staunch advocate for the humanities.
“We define relationships to each other, by the stories we tell about ourselves,” said Lerer. “And one of the things I’ve become very interested in, in my teaching and my work and in my family life as well, is how we want to become the heroes of our own stories.”
Lerer goes on to say, only slightly tongue in cheek, that in fact, we learn we are really “minor characters in other people’s novels.” But regardless, the power of storytelling is crucial to figuring out our place in the world.
“We’re looking for ways of making sense out of our life and the world in a linear, narrative, meaningful way,” said Lerer. “And much of life, for many of us, is random, confusing and threatening. So by taking power over experience, and telling a story, we find a place for ourselves in the world that’s more secure than just imagining we are some random pinball.”
And that, says Lerer, is exactly the value of the humanities.
“The idea that what the humanities teaches, and what literature teaches in particular, is how to make sense of the world, how to make sense of yourself.”
Lerer recently taught an “Introduction to the Humanities” class to more than 200 pre-med students. He told them that reading literature will make them better doctors.
“It’s going to enable you to interpret signs, because that’s what medicine is,” said Lerer. “And it’s going to enable you to interpret narrative. Because when a patient comes to you, and describes his or her symptoms, they’re telling a story, and you have to read their story ... the value of the humanities really lies in its ability to make sense of ourselves and others.”
Lerer knows this is a tough sell in a digital age that exalts math and science, but he believes the humanities should and will adapt. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re reading by turning a page or clicking a button, as long as you’re reading.
“Being a good reader is going to help you be the best version of what you want to be,” Lerer said.
When I would visit my father before he died, we would sometimes drop by the old library, mostly to say hi to my cousin Polly, who’s now the very able librarian. The building is the same, but a lot has changed, too; the Steinway is gone and the library has added computers, ebooks and Wi-Fi access.
Still, when I walk in I have the same feeling I had as a child – a combination of excitement and solace that here is a place where I could make sense of myself and the world.
Right there in a small windswept town in the middle of nowhere, I found my story.
Sally Mauk is news director at Montana Public Radio, KUFM, in Missoula. She writes a twice-monthly column for the Missoulian.