June 13, 2012

Why is literature important?


When I was in college, this question popped up a lot of times and most professors didn't seem to have a good answer for it. And I was a literature major, mind you. 

Deep down, I always knew literature was quite important, not only for me or for professors but for everybody. Eventually I had to come up with an answer to give my friends who studied engineering. As a matter of fact, people from "practical" fields such as engineers, doctors, lawyers could always make us, insecure English majors, feel useless. 

It amazed me to find engineers who actually appreciate literature and understand its importance while at the same time I heard literature professors saying the subject they teach had no real importance whatsoever.

With time, I've learn to find a couple of answers to why we should all study literature or at least read books. (By the way, I'm an advocate of reading good books and not necessarily a lot of books.) But these answers always came from other writers or thinkers.

The other day as I was reading Jane Austen's Persuasion I could find a more personal answer. The characters in this book are much less lovable than in other books such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma. Bottom line: it's difficult - if not impossible - to like them.


There's this one character, Mary, who is just so full of herself. She is so proud and thinks she is so much better than everyone else. And it's not charming pride, like Mr. Darcy's. It is ugly, mediocre and harmful pride.

Now, it's difficult for me to say this but, I saw a little bit of my own thoughts and behaviour in Mary. However, this is Ok. Because I could see that since what Mary does is uncalled for, lame and selfish - if my actions are similar to hers, they are also uncalled for, lame and selfish. With literature, or at least with good literature, we can see what we do as it really is. It's a wake up call. 

This self examination can be done through a lot of different ways, not only literature. But sometimes, even if we are confronted with our own mistakes, we still feel that we are right. It's very difficult to admit that we are wrong, or selfish, or proud. 

Inside our own heads we can always come up with some sort of excuse or justification for acting the way we do. But once you see someone doing the same things you do, suddenly it's not so pretty anymore. There is no excuse for the way Mary acts.

It's a little shocking, but it can produce changes. And I mean, life altering changes.

To tell you the truth, I was quite happy to figure out a more personal explanation to the importance of literature. Maybe if our college professors fail to provide us with a good answer, it's up to us - literature students and lovers, or as my Semantics professor said "language people" - to answer why literature matters. 

What about you? What does literature mean to you?

12 comments:

  1. Perfect post, Paula! I believe that the importance of literature is more personal than it is something that can be defined on a more wide scope. Everyone has their own journey with story/novel/poem that they read, and it then affects us all in different ways. I especially loved what you had to say about the complicated characters Of persuasion. Most of us love when each character is completely lovable, but the reality is our lives seem to resemble more of these complicated characters than not. It's awesome when you do find a link in literature that puts you in mind of yourself.

    Great post!

    <3 Britta

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    1. You're right, we do love reading about charming characters. We can also learn a lot from heroes and noble characters but it's also liberating to see how characters deal with their flaws and limitations.

      Persuasion really surprised me, I wasn't expecting it to be about such terrible people! I also didn't expect it to shed some light in the importance and function of literature. Because of this I like Jane Austen more and more.

      Thanks so much, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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  2. Ancient Athens's City Dionysia welcomed satire and critique; they believed that enduring the glimpse of such an unflattering mirror made them stronger people and wiser thinkers. In modern times, earnest criticism is viewed in much the same light that bullying is--that is, that it's something negative, unwelcome, and deserves to be ignored. If you'll recall, in the midst of George W. Bush's most egregious errors, he was proudly proclaiming that he doesn't read/listen to/ask for anything even remotely resembling opinion and judgment of his decisions.

    Apart from that note, the "uselessness" of literature is something of an honoured gag among us "language people," thanks largely to Wilde's "Dorian Gray" preface. Unfortunately, it got hijacked. I usually direct people to the following quotation by C. S. Lewis:

    "Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival."

    Literature seldom puts bread on the table, but it almost always enriches life to the point where the bread's worth eating.

    Interesting blog; I'll be following it.

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    1. In modern times, criticism - even criticism of our own selves - is indeed not very welcomed. This is a shame, though, because like you said this self-examination can lead to growth and wisdom.

      I hadn't heard this C. S. Lewis quote before (and I really like him). It shocked me a little at first - it seemed something too harsh for a writer to say. But I do get his point.

      Welcome and thanks for following!

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  3. Hey Paula!

    I agree with Britta. You make such a great point.

    You know how in life people really love when they realize that others are going through the same experiences they're going through? (Think: Support groups) Well I feel like literature does that for me. Especially Austen! Austen has this incredible way of precisely describing all the nuances of emotion that I experience, the nuanced emotions that I feel I am alone in experiencing. This perspicacity and attention to detail that I've seen in the works of astute authors is so comforting to me. I hope this doesn't sound silly, because it really is an amazing experience when you read something that is so well-crafted and just hits the nail perfectly on the head.

    I do love literature's ability to make me self-reflect in this way, to rethink all the emotions I feel that I may not have given enough thought to. Literature, then, makes me understand myself more fully, as you say. And, I suppose the next step is to work on the flaws you realize you may have!

    Thanks for a great post!

    Mary

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    1. Hi Mary! What you mentioned about support groups is extremely accurate. It is very helpful to see how others dealt with problems that are similar to the ones we are going through. Since it is difficult to find people that have problems exactly like ours, we can find a great scope of experiences in literature. Not only that but we can find a number of solutions as well.

      Reading, as you said, can be very comforting - and fun too, specially Austen!

      Thanks for the visit! xx

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  4. I read for many reasons, but I really relate to the famous C S Lewis quote "We read to know we are not alone." Many of my most powerful literary experiences have involved a sort of shock of recognition - most strongly if it's a sentiment or experience I recognise, but described in such a way that it also seems new, and gives me a fresh perspective.

    I also read because it can be instructive, fun and beautiful. I would also say that I'm a person who doesn't enjoy "drama" in real life (ie. creating difficult situations in your life because you're bored.) The arts have always seemed like a healthy way to experience "drama" and strong emotions without necessarily inflicting them on all and sundry and messing up your life in the process!

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  5. I never thought about this - some people do seem to look for drama in their lives and they could be getting it through books.

    Not to mention there is so much sentimentality on Tv, literature can really offer a wider range of perspectives.

    Have a lovely weekend!

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  6. Do you know how jealous I am of your blog? I love it so much! I wish mine was more like it. Every post I read, I want to rush to my own blog and write a response of my own on the same prompt. (Would you be okay with something like that? I would of course link to you!)

    I think you're right about a reason to read. I think literature, at least good literature, is a way to better understand the human experience. The characters and plots can challenge our ideas and our actions. I think it's a very beautiful reason to read. I tell my students that THEME is our reason for reading. Find out what the author has to say, and have a discussion with her as you read.

    As an English teacher though, I can tell you that many kids, okay, many people, don't care about that motivation at all. Even though I think that's the most important reason why we read, I don't think that it's the only reason. Reading also helps us become better communicators. Without fail, there is a correlation between reading and effective written and verbal communication. People who read have larger vocabularies and a better understanding of how ideas can be effectively organized.

    I will say this: I don't think that there's inherent value in reading done without engagement. (To be honest, I don't think that it's reading at all, but I digress.) Some English teachers think that you MUST know what the green light means in The Great Gatsby, and they tell you, and then test you on it. No wonder some students hate English class! That method is sucking the meaning and life out of literature. It's like knowing how many bolts are in the Eiffel Tower, when you could have seen it instead.

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  7. Oh my, thanks so much for the kind words! I´m really happy to know what I write interests you. Feel free to talk about subjects you find here, I'd love to read it!

    It must be so difficult to engage and encourage your students to read. I teach English as a foreign language and I can only imagine what a challange that must be. I remember disliking some of my literature classes so much - even in college. But the good ones... how pleasurable they were! However, you seem very passionate about it which makes all the difference.

    What you said about having a discussion with the author (or even with the characters) is very interesting. Since it's impossible to meet in real life all types of people and all types of experiences, we can have contact with them through literature.

    Thanks again!

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  8. Good question... I come from a deeply practical field, but still I can't imagine my life without books and literature. In books, I find what I need no matter the state I'm in: in books I find comfort, answers, dreams, new ideas to develop, advice. Books simply help me to go on with life as best as I can. Books teach me tons of things and support me when I feel unsure. They are a shelter where I can gather strength before the battle. books are always here for me and this single idea in itself is comforting and why I so much love them.

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    1. I'm always amazed to find people from practical fields who enjoy literature. It'shows that all of us can find something useful in books - even fiction books. I thought what you said so poetical - you're a true reader! Paula xx

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