Can I tell you a secret?
An embarrassing amount of what I know about classic literature comes from a kids' TV show called Wishbone.
You might remember the show. It aired on PBS in the 1990s and introduced young viewers (around middle school age) to the plots of great books. Each episode followed a familiar pattern: Wishbone—a Jack Russell terrier with, as the theme song put it, a "big imagination"—and his family encountered some kind of normal real-life situation to which the young viewer could relate. Maybe they went on a picnic, or worked on a science fair project, or encountered a moral dilemma and had to make a good decision.
Wishbone the pup had (somewhat inexplicably) read a lot of good literature and saw parallels between the real-life situation of his family and some story told in an old book. Then, in scenes that felt like flashbacks spliced into the present-day narrative, a band of players would dramatically act out the plot of the book.
The episodes were only half an hour long, so of course they couldn't act out the whole book. However, they were surprisingly good at capturing the main thrust of the plot and its major themes. And because it was set on top of a contemporary story, kids started to see how fictional tales about fictional characters could help them navigate real-life situations.
Wishbonewon four Daytime Emmys, a Peabody Award, and honors from the Television Critics Association, but more importantly, it remains firmly beloved by scores of people who were the kind of kids who came home from school to watch shows about book-loving dogs. (During graduate school, my friends and I could break into the theme song at a moment's notice. There's a reason we'd all been through at least seventeen years of school apiece, and were back for more.)
Anyhow, today I'm a college professor who teaches literature. The dirty little secret of English professors is that we haven't read all the books—anyone who claims they have is pulling a fast one on you. But I know the plots, at least, of a surprising number of books I haven't read, thanks to a Jack Russell terrier.
No, I'm not going to tell you which ones.
By now, Statler and Waldorf, those crochety old guys in the gallery from The Muppets, are yelling punny insults at me and wondering why I'm writing about a decades-old kids' show about books in a column about watching TV and movies. (Maybe you are too.)
Here's why: Wishbone didn't just give me an appetite for classic books along with a bit of wholesome weekday entertainment. By example—and, I might point out, on a TV—it taught me something important: stories that aren't "true" (fiction, in other words) matters, because stories (what they're about and the way they are told) become part of me. They begin to populate a sort of subconscious roadmap for how I live my life.
In other words, when I encounter a challenging situation, one way I intuitively navigate the choices I have to make is by relying on patterns and grooves and crevices my mind has already traversed through stories I've read in books and watched on a screen. They're "true" stories, in part because I've already experienced them. Some people talk about this in terms of the "moral" imagination. I learn how to live through stories.
That's a beautiful part of how we're created: we are the creatures with imaginations (apologies to Wishbone). We can see and create images of things that haven't happened precisely that way in reality (stories about mad scientists who create monsters that destroy them, or children who accidentally stumble on another universe in the back of a closet, or a family living in a big house in England as the twentieth century changes their way of life, or whatever). Jesus, knowing this, taught by telling stories about prodigal sons and lost pearls. Those stories don't just entertain us or help us pass the time: they teach us about the world.