Reader Matt left the following interesting question:
What is the value of fiction? I get the feeling that you think reading these books contributes to the memo of being “sincere and eager to improve the universe” and stories like this help in that goal. Wouldn’t that time be better spent reading policy positions about energy, education, social welfare or books on business, technology … ie “harder science/disciplines”.
Now, I have no problem with people reading fiction. But isn’t it essentially just another form of entertainment comparable to tv, movies, comedy clubs.. Maybe I made a connection you weren’t implying, but I’ve always viewed the importance of literature as VASTLY overstated. Its great as a form of entertainment, but I get the feeling people who read fiction a lot think it is somehow “sophisticated” etc…
Who better to answer this question than a literature prof? As we all understand, I consider that there are few pursuits as crucial as reading literature. If I didn’t think that, I would have chosen a different profession. So what is the value of literature and why shouldn’t one just read business books and technology manuals instead?
Literature is the only form of reading that has an aesthetic component (except, probably, criticism of literary works.) When you read a poem or a novel, you don’t encounter a source of information on a subject, you find a work of art. You can have a sublime experience of being touched by beauty and transported by it into a different mode of existence. Here is how Jonathan Mayhew, a scholar of literature, describes this experience:
Yesterday, when I was reading in the coffee shop, I was thinking about what I was doing. The poetry I was reading was by Andrés Sánchez Robayna, a poet from the Canary Islands. I stopped to memorize a few short poems. Occasionally, I thought of ideas I could use in my book, but mostly I was experiencing the poetry as a sacred act of communion with nature. It is a sacred act for the poet, and for me as a reader. This has nothing to do with any particular religion. It is the sacred in its purest form. (Some people need religion to get at the sacred, and others use religion to avoid the sacred. The guy at the table next to me had a Bible and some other religious books that he was studying, but I don’t know which category he fell into.)
Terry Eagleton, another famous literary critic agrees:
Art . . . has a good deal in common with religious belief, even in the most agnostic of environments. Both are symbolic forms; both distil some of the fundamental meanings of a community; both work by sign, ritual and sensuous evocation. Both aim to edify, inspire and console, as well as to confront a depth of human despair and depravity which they can nonetheless redeem by form or grace. Each requires a certain suspension of disbelief, and each links the most intense inwardness to the most unabashedly cosmic of questions. (Figures of Dissent 96-7).
A reader of literature has a very easy access to an entire range of sublime, extremely profound experiences in his or her pocket. I can access what is best in me as a human being by reading literature. How sad, how barren and miserable is an existence devoid of such experiences!
We, the human beings, have messed up a whole lot. Wars, genocide, torture, slavery, oppression. As you think about the course of human history, you almost despair of the human civilization. However, while some people were busy murdering, raping and exploiting, others were contributing to this one area that redeems us all: art. And we don’t have to be artists to contribute. The beauty of art is that we can participate in the only redeeming activity of humanity in the capacity of readers, spectators, and listeners.
I have more to say on the subject but my break is up and I have to go create my masterpiece of literary criticism. 🙂 Feel free to contribute your answers: why do you read fiction? Just because it’s fun? Or do you have other reasons?