Reflecting on “Station Eleven”: Because survival is insufficient

The morning of Nov. 1 was cold and brisk on Hope College’s campus; remnants of Halloween still hung about windows while students bundled in winter jackets drifted down sidewalks. Inside the Kruizenga Art Museum, a small group of readers had gathered in a cozy conference room located immediately behind the front desk for a gallery talk about “Station Eleven” by Charles Mason, the museum curator, and a book discussion led by Dr. Tatevik Gyulamiryan, a professor of Spanish literature at Hope College.

Mr. Mason began the gallery talk by pointing to the framed paintings which lined the perimeter of the conference room; as he described the different pieces and the links between them, he talked of the catharsis that art offers. Viewing it allows us to acknowledge or release emotions we may not have previously understood, while creating it allows us to rework those emotions and give them physical form.

In the discussion that followed, Dr. Gyulamiryan pointed out that while Shakespeare is celebrated in the novel, the central mantra of “survival is insufficient” comes from Star Trek, and asked what readers made of this. To me, it seems that the treatment of art within “Station Eleven” is critical to the message of the novel and, even more, its selection as this year’s Big Read book.

Author Emily St. John Mandel lauds Shakespeare’s plays celebrating the value and power in “Station Eleven,” the fictional graphic novels created by one of the principal characters. The particular power of art Mandel celebrates is not the power associated with its creation or consumption; it is the power of sharing art. The Traveling Symphony’s goal is not simply to read Shakespeare plays or perform them for one another; it is to share them with audiences who may not have heard of or seen them before. The power of the graphic novels does not come from the means or reason of their creation; it comes from the effect they have on the characters who possess them. Art, in all its forms, can wring emotion from us, offer hope for the future, and bring us into connection with others; art reaches its full potential to change and challenge us, move us and build us, when it brings us community. And here the novel answers for us a question which sometimes floats in the background of Big Read book discussions and events: what is the point? Why do we gather in conference rooms on cold mornings with people we do not know and discuss a novel we might not have read of our own accord? In short: because we need it.

We need stories, but more than that we need to share them. The value and meaning of The Big Read is found in discussions such as this one. To actively share the experience of processing a story turns independent reading into a communal activity. “Survival is insufficient,” Mandel reminds us repeatedly, but perhaps it can also be said that when it comes to art, creation and consumption alone are insufficient. Art lives while it is shared. We live while we share it with one another.

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