Ever since I asked my own students to respond to it, I’ve been searching for a way to better formulate my own response to the question that Haroun poses in Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories: What’s the point of stories that aren’t even true?
Like Mark Edmonson in Why Read?, Coles explores that question here, albeit in a much more ambling manner. For Coles, reading literature is “not a bad start for someone trying to find a good way to live this life: a person’s moral conduct responding to the moral imagination of writers and the moral imperative of fellow human beings in need” (205). Literature should provide us with “genuine moral awareness” (197), an awareness necessary to have “moral confrontation[s]” (162) with ourselves.
There are aspects of this book that are dated. Coles, a Harvard professor, had no way of anticipating No Child Left Behind and its ripple effects. His interview subjects all seem to talk like Willy Loman and, aside from Ralph Ellison, he doesn’t seem aware of any other authors of color. Indeed, when he does discuss the impact of Ellison’s novel, he elaborates on its impact on white students.
These are quibbles about context, issues that belong to history. Coles’ main point, his argument about the call of stories, is really a kind of call to arms, both in terms of reading and writing in response to literature. This aspect of his book should resonate with us always.