We all have a feeling that literature is important. And yet many of us avoid the category altogether, feeling it’s a waste of time to pick up literature when we can learn so much more from non-fiction. Literature, however, isn’t a waste of time at all. In fact, literature saves us time.
Literature rapidly increases our learning. We learn through experiences, either our own or those of other people. Literature amplifies our exposure to a range of situations and events that would otherwise take decades for us to experience ourselves. For example, we can safely learn what it’s like to get divorced, quit your job and fly to another country on a whim, have an affair, be in love, or kill someone.
Literature allows us to live other lives. We can be a Princess or a Prince. And we can explore what’s really on our minds, which makes us feel less lonely. We can be good or evil. We can explore taboo sexual fantasies and more. Importantly, we can explore with an honesty and safety that is generally unavailable to us in our day-to-day life. We don’t have to compromise. As Emerson wrote, “In the works of great writers we find our own neglected thoughts.”
Through literature, we develop emotional connections with characters and a shared community. We witness unparalleled kindness and terror. And though these experiences, we start to learn about ourselves and others. Reading the right passage can feel like the author knows us better than we know ourselves. It can put coherence to things we’ve only felt. If we are the territory, good literature can be the map.
Literature opens us up to a wider range of emotions. We learn to shift our perspective by putting ourselves in the shoes of others. We learn about who we are and who we want to be. And we experience the second-order consequences of choices without having to live them ourselves.
Umberto Eco in On Literature and Jean-Paul Sartre in What is Literature, expand on our sense community.
Literature allows for community. All literature encompasses at least a community of two: the reader and the writer. And each member plays a valuable role. As Sartre writes “each one trusts the other; each one counts on the other, demands of the other as much as he demands of himself.”
The community of great books becomes so large that it becomes part of our culture. When this happens, the work allows us to share experiences with others we’ve never met, making us better global citizens. Eco explains “certain characters have become somehow true for the collective imagination because over the course of centuries we have made emotional investments in them.”
Many generations of people have experienced Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice and Athos from The Three Musketeers. These stories have become part of our shared fabric, even for those who haven’t read the books. We transcend time and place. These characters make us feel. Whether it’s the joy that Elizabeth felt reading Dary’s letters or the sadness that Athos felt because he could never come to terms with the complexity of Milady. And importantly we learn moral lessons. Who doesn’t know ‘all for one and one for all.’
Eco suggests that literature has a lot to teach us about fate, or destiny, because no matter one’s desire, the story is already written and cannot be changed. As a reader we discover more than information, “it is the discovery that things happen, and have always happened, in a particular way.”
We all wish we could change stories. That we could sit down with a character and say ‘hey, aren’t you overthinking this retribution thing? Or, just be honest with her, she loves you’ and rewrite their endings. Eco thinks this is part of the power of literature, “against all our desires to change destiny, they make tangible the impossibility of changing it. And in so doing, no matter what story they are telling, they are also telling our own story, and that is why we read them and love them.” Through this emotional investment, we start to see the world through the eyes of others, with their limited information.
Literature further contributes to developing community by participating in the creation of language and identity. Eco writes that “without Dante there would have been no unified Italian language,” and then goes on to say “we might also think of what Greek civilization would have been like without Homer, German identity without Luther’s translation of the Bible, the Russian language without Pushkin, or Indian civilization without its foundation epics.”
The language used in works of literature that attract large communities enters the lexicon and becomes part of the identity of the collective. Even if you haven’t read the original work, its impact is accessible to you. For example, how many of us know that a ‘foregone conclusion’ originated in Othello? Or that to call someone a ‘laughing stock’ came from The Merry Wives of Windsor? These phrases started in the works of Shakespeare, but the huge community of readers has taken these beyond their original pages and made them part of everyday speech to the extent that we no longer associate them with literature. They are just ‘how we speak’.
Another value of literature is its link with freedom.
The freedom to express ideas that challenge people, to create language to capture aspects of the human condition, to bring to the forefront stories that go against the majority and which in doing so might make us uncomfortable. Sartre writes, “the freedom of writing implies the freedom of the citizen. One does not write for slaves. The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy. When one is threatened, the other is too.”
Literature questions. It asks, what if? What if she does this? What if the world looks like that? It places characters in a certain time and space, imbues them with particular qualities and lets them go, showing us what can happen if we marry the wrong person, ignore our values, or survive a war. And thus implores us to question as well. Are we making the right choices?
This, of course, implies that we have choices, and thus Sartre’s link to democracy. To write and to read both involve freedom. Thus the value of literature is more than the stories, it is also the link it provides to others, the sense of community it can develop, and the social structures it supports.
Still Curious? Here’s a list of fiction that influences and inspires.