Why Love Literature?

Literature can “challenge thinking, provoke discussions and […] inspire change.”

“Why love literature?” This age-old question undoubtedly deserves a complex and well thought-out response, but my gut instinct is to offer a brief quote from Alan Bennett’s award-winning play The History Boys on the simple joys of reading:

“The best moments […] are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

Aside from being one of my favourite gobbets of all time, this passage succinctly illustrates one of the principal reasons to love literature. Literature, among other things, is borne out of a need for self-expression and experience. Even non-realistic literature, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, showcase a very personal passion for ancient cultures and linguistics. Surely no other author could have done the trilogy justice. Literature is a vehicle for all of us (whether as authors, readers, or both) to be individuals while at the same time finding a sense of community. In a society that touts diversity, multiculturalism, and global awareness as virtues sacred to becoming a productive community of individuals – sound familiar? – we should all take a closer look at what literature has to offer, because it has already done it all before.

Aside from giving us a much-needed sense of camaraderie, fiction in many of its forms also provides a vast wealth of ideas that challenge thinking, provoke discussions and, perhaps most importantly, inspire change. While there will always be naysayers who attempt to deny fiction its intrinsic value, a quick look at the history of book censorship shows that history is not on their side. A quick Internet search will show that a great number of books usually taught during secondary education were banned at some point or another. A few highlights include: Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Meanwhile, across the pond in America, books I was taught about, such as Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Huxley’s Brave New World, were also once banned.

Works like the ones mentioned above being censored may not be a complete shock, since most of those novels are centred around one obvious controversy or another, but this comprehensive list of challenged or banned books aimed towards children and teens may hold several surprises. Evidently, it is not even that hard to challenge a book; (for example, Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic received some concern for a poem about “How Not To Have to Dry the Dishes”). While censorship is never a good thing, depriving readers the chance to think for themselves, having these books taken off our bookshelves further proves the point that literature has a definite, invaluable place in society, and perhaps we are all better for it.

On a more positive note, The Guardian posted an article in January of this year aptly titled ‘What can literature teach us about doing business better?’ strongly making the point that although “[l]iterature may not have the answers to the challenges of sustainability or economic crises […] it can bring a fresh perspective, especially when it comes to people matters.” Therefore, even classics like Sophocles’ Antigone has its uses. But the trick is, according to author Maurice Biriotti, even though we can extrapolate literary lessons (such as how to hold two conflicting viewpoints in mind, which is a central point in Antigone) to fit the practicality of the business world, it may be more fruitful to reverse the situation and look at how business practices draw from literary lessons.

However, literature is certainly not without its obstacles. Recently, my mother began one of our Skype conversations with: “Do you know you’re getting a useless degree? Forbes says so.” Although the article does not give exact numbers for the UK, for comparison, a Higher Education Lecturer can make anywhere between £33,000 and £56,000 depending on an individual’s experience. In addition, it is important to remember that there are still other jobs out there for students of literature if teaching doesn’t suit you. Although it is perfectly fine to pursue a career in academics, or lecture at a university, do not be afraid to try something new! Start a blog, look into overseas opportunities, promote important causes like literacy through an organization, or consider other literature-related fields like publishing, journalism or social-media management. Better yet, in honour of NaNoWriMo, how about getting a head start on that novel you’ve always been meaning to write? Having an English degree makes us uniquely qualified to understand the human conscience, and we should utilize this talent to the fullest. Whatever you end up doing, do not let your degree get in the way of doing something that you love.

Lastly, I would like to return briefly to the idea of literature acting as a bridge to understanding the world around us. As a speaker of English as a second language, I am continually amazed at how limitless English Literature really is as a field and we as speakers of English have a great privilege in being able to easily access all of these great ideas. A large number of books I read before moving to America were all translated from English, and to this day, I still get fairly excited when I come upon a book that I read when I was younger. Read to learn; read to live; and of course, read, because as Oscar Wilde reminded us in De Profundis, “what joy can be greater?”

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