In an age where ‘Netflix and chill’ is the preferred weekend pursuit (don’t get us wrong, we indulge in it too), the question we are asking is – Does literature have any value today?

The idea that literature has no serious value and is at best a leisure activity, rests in the premise that to be a productive worker in the global economy we have today, one doesn’t really need literature. Reading is becoming an arcane art form, good enough only for a weekend indulgence, not to be thought of as an academic option or even a serious intellectual pursuit. That too is losing its charm to the amazing content that Netflix comes up with every month. A friend of mine once remarked, “I don’t really understand how you can read books. What a waste of time!”

Writer Daniel Pink says in the “Revenge of the Right Brain” that in a world that is choked with choices and deluged with data, the abilities that matter (including in the workplace) are those resident in the right hemisphere of the brain – artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture and pursuing the transcendent.  

“To flourish in this age, we’ll need to supplement our well-developed high tech abilities with aptitudes that are “high concept” and “high touch.” High concept involves the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to come up with inventions the world didn’t know it was missing. High touch involves the capacity to empathize, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one’s self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning.”

So there might be a case for indulging in literature with a little more enthusiasm after all. But to what extent?

To be human is a lot more

… than just belonging to a specific species in the animal kingdom and having innumerable advantages over the rest of the living creatures. One such advantage we have is language. But even that is not unique to us. Yuval Noah Harari explains in his book Sapiens that every animal has some kind of language. Neither is ours the only vocal language; all ape and monkey species have vocal languages. What makes our language unique though, is the ability to gossip. Yes, that’s right. Gossip, the kind where our ancestors would convey who is hated by the group, who is sleeping with whom and who is a cheat, allowed for cooperation in large numbers because it allowed people to know who could be trusted and who could not.

Harari goes on to state that the most unique feature about our language is the ability to speak about fiction. Fiction has allowed humans to imagine things and imagine them collectively. We can weave common myths and legends, which allows for large-scale cooperation, not just between close family and friends but also between complete strangers who live in geographically unconnected parts of the world and may have never met or even seen each other.  

“Churches are rooted in common religious myths. States are rooted in common national myths. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Yet none of these things exist outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

Stories from our past, guiding our future. Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

Legends and myths allowed our earliest ancestors to band together and stay committed to cooperating. Stories gave them psychological control over the unpredictable environment and organised their reality through a common narrative. Language, and by extension literature, allowed for the unification of thought and knowledge. In fact, this may very well be the function of all art forms. 

The definition of literature is subjective

Writing has existed from as far back as the Egyptian hieroglyphics to the logs from Ancient China. Does that constitute literature? Or does literary tradition begin only from when the Epic of Gilgamesh was written? Whatever the verdict regarding its genesis, one thing is certain – literature is the narrative of our social consciousness.

One of literature’s main concerns is to comment on human conditions; it explores and exposes both the sublimity that exists in our society and digs at its problems. By conveying emotions, experiences and psychological explanations of human behaviour, literature gives us a map to our selves. It also unlocks the cultures of bygone eras, something we wouldn’t be able to understand if the thoughts, feelings and ideas experienced by the contemporaries of a certain time or place, weren’t captured in written works. Literature thus makes it possible for us to transcend barriers and connect with other ages and cultures. It is another form of education, that teaches us about differences, and allows us to grow more empathetic towards others.

Literature also extends our point of view, allowing our singular perspective to evolve in multiple ways as we live the lives of the characters we read about. There is a pleasure (and even discomfort) to be had in the complex representations of human interaction that are contained in the pages of literature. From the comfort of your chair, you can live an entire arc of a life, just by thumbing through a paperback (or swiping on your kindle if that’s your preferred reading format). You can experience being lost at sea for a year and know what it takes to survive in hostile conditions. Or you can visualise yourself as a character living in The Palace of Versailles during the turbulent times of The French Revolution as the monarchy and the commoners clashed at the gates.

Literature moves the reader beyond superficial and ordinary conversations into a realm where all kinds of feelings, from ecstasy to envy, can be experienced without any paranoia or fear of persecution. Even fiction, with its imagined stories, gives an unvarnished account of man’s deepest desires and unspeakable fantasies.

As Walt Whitman put it, in “The Answerer”, The Leaves of Grass,  

“The words of true poems give you more than poems, They give you to form for yourself poems, religions, politics, war, peace, behavior, histories, essays, daily life, and every thing else.”

Literature gives wings to individual self-expression 

Reading books is a source of both personal inspiration as well as self-discovery.

In a letter to his friend Oscar Pollak, Franz Kafka wrote in 1904,  

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”

Not an ideal pursuit. Photo by Sanskriti Nagar

What books do for the human spirit is a question that is mulled over by writers and scholars constantly, and yet there is no simple answer to it. What is true though, whether books are consumed for sheer entertainment or used to guide one’s moral compass, is that without literature life is hell (in Charles Bukowski’s words). Books are therapy, something all bookworms can testify to. And it is for this reason that literature needs to be celebrated. With a lot more enthusiasm. With a lot more seriousness. With a lot more intellectual obsession.

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Published by Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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