LIGHT AS LITERATURE, LITERATURE AS LIGHT
By Julie Towne Espinosa (’07)
In the pages of a time-worn novel, a student finds light.
NOTE: As part of the annual George H. Brimhall Memorial Essay Contest, Homecoming 2006 honored six students for their essays about early BYU educator Alice Louise Reynolds and the Homecoming theme, Lighter of Lamps. The following essay by Julie Espinosa received third place.
As a sophomore on study abroad in Spain, I was delighted to live in the town where Miguel de Cervantes—the author of Don Quixote de La Mancha—was born. I spent autumn afternoons studying various editions of Don Quixote in the Instituto Cervantes library and at Cervantes’ reconstructed home. I felt my heart flutter as I approached the softly lit books—some original editions, others translations, but all treasures of literary history.
When I returned to BYU, I again studied Don Quixote, this time in a class that coincided with the 400th anniversary of the publication of the first part of the novel. I discovered one day, weeks into the semester, that the title page from the first edition bears the Latin inscription: POST TENEBRAS SPERO LUCEM, or, “After darkness, I hope for light.”
In my process of reading this book, I had unknowingly adopted this venerable declaration. I realized that over time my reading had become richer, that I was getting subtle puns and becoming more aware of Cervantes’ style and craft. I wasn’t struggling as hard to get through the 17th-century Spanish anymore but eagerly picking apart the sentences and chapters to find new layers of meaning. I was urged onward through the book, seeking its light.
None of my gains as a reader would have been possible were it not for my professor. He was not only well versed in Hispanic letters but dedicated to engaging his students. Part of his success as a teacher came from incorporating outside texts and artwork into class and taking us to related exhibitions, lectures, and films. But the most important part of his teaching was his contagious excitement. Hearing him talk about the book, I felt torn between wanting to swear a chivalric oath to fix all the ills in the world and wanting to commit myself to graduate school to become a university professor. That class taught me to really love literature and to seek enlightenment from it.
I think my experience must be similar to that of students of Alice Louise Reynolds, the founder we honor in Homecoming this year. Her students’ admiration is evident in the lavish praise they heaped on her and in their creation of Alice Louise Reynolds clubs around the country in her honor. She was known as “a lighter of lamps” for her ability to spark students’ curiosity in literature and light up their minds with her enthusiastic lectures. Of her, a former student wrote, “She clearly believed that the chief functions of a teacher of literature are to illuminate and to stimulate—to imbue her students with a thirst for reading and to help them to explore, to understand, and (in the best sense) to enjoy.”
Reynolds was admirable for many accomplishments—at 21 she was the first woman at BYU to become a full professor; she continually went to the most prestigious universities in the East and abroad to expand her education; she headed several political organizations and advocated women’s suffrage; and she served as an editor of the Relief Society Magazine for more than seven years. But her basic devotion to teaching and to engaging her students through books stands out as her defining characteristic.
Reynolds knew that contained in books were insights into human nature and truths about the human experience. For that reason, she spent her life on a quixotic quest to build a library worthy of her university. While Reynolds never experienced a bridal or baby shower of her own, her students once threw her a book shower. In characteristic selflessness she donated the tomes to BYU, as she would with hundreds more from her personal library. She worked for 34 years on the library committee, holding book drives and fundraisers, and eventually swelling the library collection to 100,000 volumes from its original 10,000. She was called “the heart and soul” of such efforts by fellow committee members who marveled how “her faith and indefatigable efforts electrified the faculty and carried over in the community.”
Reynolds electrified everyone around her with her passion, and I see that electricity still lingering at BYU. I see professors who selflessly dedicate themselves to illuminating students’ minds. They help us see each book as more than just paper, cardboard, and glue. They show us that each book is an intricate and eternally fascinating repository of light. I see teachers and students gathering together, sharing glimpses of the light we’ve found, and giving others an added ounce of fuel with which to light their paths through life.
Julie Espinosa is a print journalism major from Ellicott City, Md.