Before I begin, let me just say that if you're looking for a literary analysis of the Great American Novels, look elsewhere. Don't get me wrong, I love them (and have read all thousand of them), but what's the point of literature?
I love literature, and I love talking about it, but sometimes I am left wondering its point. This doesn't mean that I don't think literature is important because I do. It simply means that I am not clear on why it's necessary or how it's different from other kinds of writing.
When I was in high school, I received what might have been the worst book report of all time. I had to read a book. I don't remember which one, but it was probably Animal Farm. All the book report consisted of was several paragraphs gushing about how much the student liked the book with a final section of pure fabrication: "This book is great because I can relate to it. Even though everybody else thinks I'm weird, this story is like me. I hope to someday be as good as this great author and put out some amazing stories just like them." While not laziness on the student's part per se, more a severe lack of effort, this type of response indicates why many people say reading for pleasure has diminished in popularity over the years. Most people's knowledge (or mis-knowledge) about literature goes no further than from watching a movie or listening to someone else talk about reading a novel they recently finished (or at least pretended to).
What Good Is Literature?
There's no point in arguing that literature is important because you can't prove it. The counterargument is always the same: what good is literature? What does it do for you?
Why should we bother with it? This is a perfectly sensible question, and it's worth asking.
Here are three reasons why literature might be worth your time:
It improves your writing. A well-written book will help you understand what makes a story work. It will show you how problems can be overcome, how characters drive the plot, and how conflicts can be resolved. Even if you don't want to write yourself, this skill will be helpful when writing college papers or work reports.
It teaches you about other people. The best books are windows into other lives, times, and experiences. They teach empathy by showing us what life looks like from another perspective, regardless of whether that perspective is shared by the author or the narrator of a story.
It helps you talk about big ideas. Books are excellent tools for exploring big ideas in a safe way — whether it's love, death, war, or forgiveness. A novel can help us make sense of abstract concepts we may not have encountered before and give us new ways to think about them.
Stories are the way we make sense of our lives. Literature allows us to see the world through the eyes of others. Stories let us experience triumphs and tragedies, victories and defeats that might otherwise be beyond our ken.
So what good is literature? Why do we need it? Some might argue that it's frivolous, a waste of time, an indulgence reserved for those who have too much money and education. They're wrong.
Stories can change lives — even save them.
It's hard to make a case for literature. The most common line of defense is that reading fiction is somehow good for you: it makes you a better person or a more empathetic person, or maybe it even keeps your brain from rotting away once you've left school.
This claim doesn't get us very far. For one thing, it's not true. No study has shown that reading fiction makes people more sociable, empathetic, or less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. Such studies rest on the assumption that there's an identifiable quality called "empathy," which can be measured in a lab and then improved upon through repeated exposure to literary fiction. But this is a dubious assumption; there is no such thing as empathy, at least not as we usually understand it. Empathy is a word we use to describe a wide range of behaviors that may have little in common except their off-putting squishiness. Everything from imagining what someone else might be thinking or feeling to actually feeling something ourselves when we see others (including fictional others) suffering. These are not the same thing. To lump them together under the label "empathy" is confusing and unhelpful; it muddies our understanding of how literature works on the mind.
Literature As A Source Of Enjoyment
Literature is a term used to describe written and sometimes spoken material. Derived from the Latin word literature meaning "writing formed with letters," literature most commonly refers to works of the creative imagination, including poetry, drama, fiction, non-fiction, and in some instances, journalism and song.
In its broadest sense, literature is any written work; the word derives from Latin literature/literature "writing formed with letters," although some definitions include spoken or sung texts. More restrictively, it is writing that possesses literary merit. Literature can be classified according to whether it is fiction or non-fiction and whether it is poetry or prose. It can be further distinguished according to major forms such as a short story or drama. Works are often categorized according to historical periods or their adherence to certain aesthetic features or expectations (genre).
The concept has changed meaning over time: nowadays, it can broaden to have non-written verbal art forms, and thus it is difficult to agree on its origin and nature. It can refer to "the whole of an individual nation's output of poetry, prose, and drama through history" (Oxford English Dictionary) but more narrowly as writing is considered to be of superior or lasting artistic merit.
Many people consider literature to be a form of entertainment. They read for pleasure, as an escape from the troubles of their lives. They want to share in the joy of a character who triumphs over adversity or to experience the sense of awe that nature can inspire. Others seek the insight into their own lives and emotions that they may find in the experiences described by poets and novelists.
Literature is a lens through which readers look at life, allowing them to see the world from another person's perspective. Readers may learn about themselves and life by reading about characters faced with difficult choices and important decisions. They can vicariously experience how someone else might react in certain situations and perhaps develop ideas about how they respond if faced with similar circumstances.
When people read literature, they also have an opportunity to reflect on the presented social, political, economic, and ethical issues. For example, when reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, readers are introduced to characters who represent different aspects of society during this time and can reflect upon what was happening during this time, such as prohibition, immigration, or women's suffrage.
How Can Reading Books Benefit Us?
Books provide us with an escape from our troubles and worries. In reading, we get transported to another world, another time or place where we can be free of the stresses and strains of our everyday lives. Reading also increases our knowledge about the world around us and makes us smarter. Books also expand our vocabulary, which helps us communicate better with others.
Books also build empathy by helping you understand other people's perspectives and what it is like to walk in someone else's shoes. This is especially important in a world that is becoming more diverse, both culturally and ethnically, so it is becoming more critical than ever to learn how to understand other people's viewpoints.
Reading books can help you slow down and enjoy life at a slower pace in an increasingly technological world. Reading at a leisurely pace enables you to relax to enjoy your life more.
Reading can help keep your brain sharp as you get older and prevent cognitive decline. It has been shown that reading regularly can help keep your brain strong as you get older, even helping stave off Alzheimer's disease. Reading can also help improve memory function because it exercises your brain by keeping it active and stimulated.
Literature is one of the most exciting and significant expressions of humanity. By reading literature, we can see through the eyes of others and expand our outlook on the world. It is important to remember that a book or story that does not resemble the reader's life in any way can still have value for them. This is why readers need to be exposed to many kinds of texts.
In addition to building cultural capital, reading literary fiction has increased empathy and social perception. The ability of literature to create empathy may be especially important today when people often feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of information available online and disconnected from those with different backgrounds or experiences. Reading about characters who are different from ourselves also helps us understand how others see the world, leading to more compassion for their perspective.
Literature is a key window into the history
Literature is a key window into history. While primary sources such as letters, diaries, and photographs can tell us what life was like at the time, they often give us only one perspective. A novel written by someone living through that time period, however, can help us to see the bigger picture.
This can be particularly useful in helping us understand what life was like for people whose experiences have been traditionally marginalized. For example, the first novels written in English by women reflected the restrictions of their lives: they were often written anonymously and published under male pseudonyms.
The main characters of these early female-authored novels were often young women raised to marry well and confined to their homes and families. While their authors were constrained by the lives of their characters, the novels contain essential insights into what it meant to be a woman in 18th-century England.
The texts from any given period provide us with a view of how people lived during that time. There's this idea that "history is written by the victors," but even if we only read about the winners in history books, we can still find out a lot about the losers in literary works. In fact, some of our most valuable literary works were written by failed revolutionaries like Dante Alighieri or Alexander Pushkin or by writers caught up in civil wars like Shakespeare.
Literature gives us insight into societies that no longer exist. When you're studying history, you're trying to piece together fragments of what happened before you were born. The more fragments you have to work with, the better your picture will be, and literature provides thousands of them: details about daily life such as what people wore and ate;
Literature has been more than just an essential educational and entertainment medium for generations. Still, in our modern world of television, video games, and the internet, many people seem to have forgotten why. It's not just a matter of the way we absorb information changing either; it's a question of taste. How can we come to appreciate literature more? And most importantly, how can we help it survive?
Ultimately, the point of literature is to impart knowledge and understanding. That may seem like a simple enough concept, but there's more to it than you might think. Literature also has the power—for better or worse—to shape our values and beliefs. The works we read as children shape us in many ways, and they always have. Choose wisely!
Literature isn't something that can be measured by a standardized test; it isn't something you need to save for one day in the future; it's not an elusive mystery that can somehow be explained. The best way to look at literature is simply to read it, to take in its beauty, and appreciate it for what it is. And if you leave a piece of literature with questions about its meaning or value, then maybe you should think of that as a good sign. Because regardless of whether or not the world has gotten any better, we have at least made some progress by learning to ask the right questions.