Why Read Lit? Let Me Count the Reasons

Auguste de Chatillon, "Léopoldine Reading the Book of Hours" (1835)

Auguste de Chatillon, “Léopoldine Reading the Book of Hours” (1835)

I’ve got three weeks until my sabbatical and can hardly wait to plunge into my next book project. You won’t be surprised to learn that it will be about the interaction between readers and texts.

My novelist friend Rachel Kranz has given me a good question to focus my efforts: “Why is literature essential to people?” Although literature is very obviously important to me, Rachel’s question prompts me to ask why I should insist that others read it. What can I promise them if they pick up the classics and what should I warn them about if they don’t? Today’s post is an initial response to Rachel’s question.

If you ask authors about the importance of literature, they sometimes become equivocal. I suspect that’s because they’re worried about banging their own drum too loudly or appearing pompous. Take, for instance, an interchange that appears in Nicole Krauss’s fine novel Great House, which I posted on recently. An author who has become famous makes fun of the question but for reasons that are complicated:

I made a point of answering the question I received with some frequency from journalists, Do you think books can change people’s lives? (which really meant, Do you actually think anything you could write could mean anything to anyone?), with a little airtight thought experiment in which I asked the interviewer to imagine the sort of person he might be if all of the literature he’d read in his life were somehow excised from his mind, his mind and soul, and as the journalist contemplated this nuclear winter I sat back with a self-satisfied smile, saved again from facing the truth.

The truth the author is avoiding has to do with issues her failure to nurture meaningful relationships. She has sacrificed her men to her writing and is now starting to have second thoughts. But that being acknowledged, I think she’s right. Nuclear winter seems an accurate analogy of life without literature.

The importance of literature is not self-evident, however, in that many non-readers appear to live lives that don’t resemble nuclear winters. In a well-known passage from his poem “Asphodel,” however, William Carlos Williams tells us not to be fooled by outer appearance:

My heart rouses
           thinking to bring you news
            of something
that concerns you
            and concerns many men. Look at
                        what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
            despised poems.
                        It is difficult
to get the news from poems
            yet men die miserably every day
                        for lack
of what is found there.

Nuclear winter, men dying miserably—is that enough to get people reading? Or perhaps the analogies sound hyperbolic and we should spell out the situation with every day examples.

“We are more than our hunger,” Mary Oliver writes in a lovely poem about frogs in April, and literature acknowledges this and gives us language to articulate what the “more” is. Without literature we would be trapped in tiny little mental boxes. We would see no more than what enters through our senses, we would feel suffocated by the world of “what is.” Our lives would seem so bleak that we would thrash around in fear and anger. Or at least be quietly desperate.

Putting this positively, literature makes us realize that the world is much bigger and richer than we ever imagined. To borrow a word invented by Lisa in The Simpsons, literature embiggens us. The possibilities of language and people that we encounter in literature appear to have no limits.

Of course, many people don’t read literature, just as many people thrash around in fear and anger. Sure, they know that they need stories, which they devour in a never-ending stream on television and elsewhere. But to distinguish between vapid wish fulfillments and genuine literature, consuming the first is like stuffing yourself with sugar and saturated fats. You don’t starve to death but your health takes a beating and maybe eventually you will in fact die miserably.

Even people who don’t read literature, however, benefit when people around them do, just as one might feel bolstered by the local church bells, even though one never goes to church. They have a sense that there is a bigger reality out there, even if they don’t think they have direct access to it.

Except that they do have access. Shakespeare’s “Let us not to the marriage of true mind admit impediments” has a way of showing up in the weddings of even non-literary couples. The magnificent King James translation of King David’s 23rd psalm does the same in funerals.

So simply being aware of literature has some good effects. The question then becomes, how much better do you want your life to be? Maybe my book, which will talk about how to use literature to its maximum effect, is equivalent to a fitness instructor. Sure you’ll help your body if you take an occasional walk, but if you really want to extend your life and live a relatively ache-free old age, you’ll work out. Or engage in disciplined close readings.

And now let me throw throw something else into the mix, knowing, as I do, that there are people who, though well-read, still feel claustrophobically caught within their own minds. I don’t think it’s enough just to read, wonderful though that is. You have to act upon what you read.

I am reminded when I say this of the Archangel Michael’s words in the closing stanzas of Paradise Lost. Adam has just learned about the immensity of God’s love for humankind and is feeling better about getting kicked out of Eden. Michael, however, tells him that it’s not enough just to know things. Our subsequent deeds must be “answerable” to our knowledge—which is to say we must act upon the higher wisdom we have attained and become better people. As Michael sees it, this means that Adam must add faith, virtue, patience, temperance and love to his life:

                                                                 [O]nly add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add Faith,
Add virtue, Patience, Temperance, add Love,
By name to come called Charity, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath 
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.

How’s that for an incentive? If we behave and act upon the wisdom we find in books, we shall possess a Paradise within that far surpasses even the Garden of Eden.

It’s as though, when we enter a work of literature, we are on the hero’s quest as described by Joseph Campbell. I’ll more fully explore this idea in a future post but today I focus on the “elixir” that the hero sets out to find, whether it be an amulet, a holy grail, or some other purifying symbol. Think of this as the special wisdom that one finds in a literary classic.

It is not enough, Campbell tells us, for the hero to find the elixir. He (or she) must then return to the world and share it with all humankind. This sharing is why we were put on this earth. The hero who doesn’t cross the return threshold is a failure.

So why read literature? Because you will find there treasures that are not only essential to your own well being but to the well being of the whole world. Upon your subsequent return to the barren wasteland, you will cause the water to flow again. Even those who don’t read will be able to drink.

This entry was posted in Krauss (Nicole), Milton (John), Oliver (Mary), Williams (William Carlos) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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