Amidst the gushing river of popular culture, the turbulent climate of politics, media bias, and misinformation, the tornadic winds of modern educational theories, and the volcanic eruption of screens and technology, a pertinent set of questions exists: Why read literature? Of what value is literature?
It is helpful to think about the role of literature in the context of cultural problems—for literature has always persisted in the midst of and in response to a fallen, often chaotic world. Assuredly, Wordsworth’s lament applies to all ages, a prescient vision of the past, present, and future:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
Truly, we have given our hearts away, disconnecting ourselves from God, nature, and others—but literature has the capability of providing a restorative cure. So then, what kind of literature holds such power? The answer is the Great Book. Samuel Johnson said in his “Preface to Shakespeare” that “the only test of literary greatness is length of duration and continuance of esteem.” Moreover, a book may be considered great if it meets three criteria. The first is universality. A great book speaks to people across many ages—affecting, inspiring, and changing readers far removed from the time and place in which it was written. Second, it has a Central One Idea and themes that address matters of enduring importance. And third, it features noble language. A great book is written in beautiful language that enriches the mind and elevates the soul.
Now that we have established what kind of literature to read, let’s consider why we should read literature. Here are six reasons:
1. Reading great literature exercises the imagination. We enjoy stories; it is a pleasure to meet characters and to live in their world, to experience their joys and sorrows. In a practical sense, an active imagination helps us perceive truth, make value judgments, and deal with the complexities of life in creative ways. It even aids in our ability to use logic and to reason well.
2. Reading literature transports us out of our current context and into other ages and places. Interacting with characters across space and time diminishes our ignorance. Mark Twain once remarked, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, narrowmindedness, and bigotry. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime.” Because most of us cannot pilot a steamboat along the Mississippi River, or travel to many parts of the world as Twain was able to do, literature serves as a worthy guide and vessel for our exploration.
3. Reading literature enables us to see the world through the eyes of others. It trains the mind to be flexible, to comprehend other points of view—to set aside one’s personal perspectives to see life through the eyes of someone who is of another age, class, or race. Reading literature nurtures and develops the power of sympathetic insight.
4. Great works of literature have played a fundamental role in shaping society. For example, The Epic of Gilgamesh initiated the archetypal narrative of the hero embarking on an epic quest, which became a popular and influential blueprint for literature the world over. Some other landmark texts include Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which is credited as the first novel in the Western world, creating a genre that has since become the dominant form of literature in the modern era. A little later, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther was deeply influential (though not necessarily in positive ways); Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads initiated the Romantic era in English literature, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped push a divided nation into civil war over slavery. In the early twentieth century, Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle exposed the horrors of America’s meatpacking industry and caused many reforms in the mass production of food. Books have the power to shape culture and history.
5. Reading literature fosters contemplation and reflection, and improves our facility with language and vocabulary. Interacting with these texts requires deliberate, conscious thinking in order to understand and retain longer units of thought. The average number of words per sentence in the sixteenth century was 65-70 words, but, not surprisingly, that number has steadily declined through the modern era to about 15 words today. Likewise, the average number of letters per word has declined, revealing a decrease in the use of longer, higher-level words. The continual exposure to elaborate, elevated syntax and diction develops not only our thinking abilities, but our speaking and writing skills too. We begin to conceive of sentences in the manner of the great writers, imitating their techniques in style and vocabulary. In his poem Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot prophesied that we would be “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Alas, we are unable to retain and reflect upon an idea for any meaningful length of time. Reading great literature is an active push against this tendency.
6. Finally, reading literature helps us to know ourselves—in short, to understand man. For the subject of literature is man. In its pages, we learn about our creative and moral faculties, our conscience, and most importantly, our soul. We see man at the height of his glory and the depth of his folly—with every heartrending thought, action, emotion, and belief in between. In other words, literature holds a mirror up to human nature, revealing its inner depths and complexities, its array of virtues and vices; and moreover, it holds a mirror up to a cultural age, illuminating its shape and ethos.
Long ago, inscribed on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was the maxim, “Know thyself.” Reading literature remains the surest means to do just that—to live the life Socrates declared the only one worth living: the examined life. After all, literature may simply be the creative expression of metaphysics and being: In some mysterious way, each life is every life, and all lives are one life—there is something of ourselves in each and every character we meet in the hallowed pages of a Great Book.