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Sunday, April 02, 2023

Literature stands the test of time — in ourselves and in the world

When I first read Tom Stoppard’s play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” I was in what I like to dub the first great existential crisis of my life. It was my senior year of high school and the only thing that gave me any sense of purpose in my life was focusing on college applications. Getting into college — my top choice, specifically — was the only goal I had. After that, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study or what I wanted to do. I was beginning to realize the be-all and end-all of my high school life was not the be-all and end-all of life.

A brief summary of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is:

Two minor characters from “Hamlet” fumble around on stage, knowing they have a specific task they have to complete, realize the task is for naught, and then come to terms with the fact they are going to die.

It’d be pretty bleak if it was not punctuated by sharp wordplay, witty banter and a deep friendship.

That play gave me life my senior year of high school, if only by reminding me life had no meaning. A paradox, it may seem, but there was a great comfort in knowing my be-all and end-all of getting into my dream school could be tossed away as insignificant.

I read “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” two more times — once during a messy breakup and again this semester. During the breakup, reading it provided me with the perspective that life goes on, we are on a boat being carried away to our fates, and what happens will happen. This year, I read it with the perspective of someone who had lost a friend.

I will not get into the details of either situation; that is not what I am going for in this column.

The point I want to make is literature is something we can turn back to at different points in our lives and each time, come away with another sense of who we are and what life is. It goes beyond our little pockets of ourselves — literature is something that has sustained time, and we use it to connect with others across centuries.

When we read, we don’t just read to be entertained, though I am sure that is what a lot of us think. When we read, when we watch movies and television, when we consume media, there is a part of us that wants to identify with what is presented to us. Now that is not always the case, but it happens regardless of whether we are consciously aware of it. It is not just the characters, but also the themes of the stories.

Someone once tried to tell me the reason literature and art were not important was because “nothing changes … ‘West Side Story’ is the same thing as ‘Romeo and Juliet.’” At 15, I was shocked into silence. At 21, I want to find this guy again and argue that he has completely missed the point of literature. The point of literature is I can pick up a copy of “Sense and Sensibility,” written more than 200 years ago, and pinpoint moments that exactly reflect the nature of my relationship with my sister. The point of literature is almost everyone has that one book they return to, again and again, whether for comfort or for guidance, and there are hundreds of people out there who turn to that same book — whether for the same reason or for different ones. The point of literature is we can look back at it and find something about ourselves we did not realize, or something someone hundreds of years ago also learned.

Petrana Radulovic is an English and computer science (super) senior. Her column appears on Fridays. 

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