What is Literature for? – Free Ebook

We have a general sense that these sort of places are filled with things that are deeply important, but what exactly is literature good for? Why should we spend our time reading novels or poems when out there, big things are going on. Let’s have a think about some of the ways literature benefits us.. Of course, it looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is ultimately the greatest time-saver, for it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millenia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest ‘reality simulator’, a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you could ever directly witness. It lets you – safely: that’s crucial – see what it’s like to get divorced. Or kill someone and feel remorseful. Or chuck in your job and take off to the desert. Or make a terrible mistake while leading your country. It lets you speed up time: in order to see the arc of a life from childhood to old age It gives you the keys to the palace, and to countless bedrooms, so you can assess your life in relation to that of others. It introduces you to fascinating people: a Roman general, an 11th century French princess, a Russian upper class mother just embarking on an affair… It takes you across continents and centuries Literature cures you of provincialism and, at almost no cost, turns us into citizens of the world. Literature performs the basic magic of showing us what things look like from someone else’s — point of view. It allows us to consider the consequences of our actions on others in a way we otherwise wouldn’t. And it shows us examples of kindly, generous, sympathetic people Literature typically stands opposed to the dominant value system, the one that rewards money and power. Writers are on the other side, they make us sympathetic to ideas and feelings that are of deep importance but that can’t afford airtime in a commercialised, status-conscious and cynical world. We are weirder than we’re allowed to admit. We often can’t say what’s really on our minds. But in books, we find descriptions of who we genuinely are and what events are actually like, described with an honesty quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for. In the best books it’s as if the writer knows us better than we know ourselves. They find the words to describe the fragile, weird, special experiences of our inner lives: – the light on a summer morning – the anxiety we felt at the gathering – the sensations of a first kiss – the envy when a friend told us of their new business – the longing we experienced on the train, looking at the profile of another passenger we never dare to speak to Writers open our hearts and minds – and give us maps to our own selves so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia and persecution. As the writer Emerson remarked: ‘In the works of great writers, we find our own neglected thoughts.’ Literature is a corrective to the superficiality and compromises of friendship. Books are our true friends, always to hand, never too busy, giving us unvarnished accounts of what things are really like. All of our lives, one of our greatest fears is of failing, of messing up… of becoming, as the tabloids put it, a ‘LOSER’. Every day, the media takes us into stories of failure Interestingly, a lot of literature is also about failure. In one way or another, a great many novels, plays and poems are about people who’ve messed up, people… …who slept with mum by mistake … who let down their partner … or who died after running up some debts on shopping sprees. If the media got to them, they’d make mincemeat out of them. But great books don’t judge as harshly or as one-dimensionally as the media. They evoke pity for the hero and fear for ourselves based on a new sense of how near we all are to destroying our own lives. But if literature can really do all these things, we might need to treat it a bit differently to the way we do now. We tend to treat it as a distraction, an entertainment (something for the beach). But it’s far more than that, it’s really therapy, in the broad sense. We should learn to treat it as doctors treat their medicines, something we prescribe in response to a range of ailments and classify according to the problems it might be best suited to addressing. Literature deserves its prestige for one reason above all others: because it’s a tool to help us live and die with a little more wisdom, goodness and sanity.

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