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.
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.
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,
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,
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.