What is literature for?

In the hurly burly world of our Post-Fordist society, it is increasingly becoming difficult to sit and concentrate for thirty seconds – let alone thirty minutes – as the digital background babble drills into our consciousness, and we are met in the world outside the office by TV in waiting rooms and the backseats of cars; by music in supermarkets, retail stores, gyms and buses; by advertisements everywhere you look.

Each of these things distract us from our thoughts, and from real life. They consume us to such an extent that people sometimes even ask questions like “why do we even need books?” “Why should we spend our times reading novels and poems, when so much is happening?”

Well, fortunately, to answer these questions the wonderful folk at The School of Life have created a marvellous animated essay, which extols the value of books and literature in expanding our circle of empathy, validating and ennobling our inner life, and fortifying us against the paralyzing fear of failure.

The creators note that we tend to treat literature as a distraction, an entertainment – something for the beach. But it’s far more than that, it’s really therapy, in the broad sense. Indeed, they suggest books could be used as a cure for many of the afflictions that ail us:

“We should learn to treat literature as doctors treat their medicines, something we prescribe in response to a range of ailments and classify according to the problems it might be best suited to addressing.”

The essay notes key rewards found in reading, which are detailed here below:

It saves you time

It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness: it lets you – safely: that’s crucial – see what it’s like to get divorced. Or kill someone and feel remorseful. Or chuck in your job and take off to the desert. […] it lets you speed up time.

It turns us into citizens of the world

Literature introduces you to fascinating people: a Roman general, an 11th century French Princess, a Russian upper class mother just embarking on an affair…it takes you across continents and centuries. Literature cures you of provincialism and, at almost no extra cost, turns us into citizens of the world.

It makes you nicer

Literature performs the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s point of view; it allows us to consider the consequences of our actions on others in a way we otherwise wouldn’t; and it shows us examples of kindly, generous, sympathetic people.

Literature deeply stands opposed to the dominant value system — the one that rewards money and power. Writers are on the other side — they make us sympathetic to ideas and feelings that are of deep importance but can’t afford airtime in a commercialized, status-conscious, and cynical world.

It’s a cure for loneliness

We’re weirder than we like to admit. We often can’t say what’s really on our minds. But in books we find descriptions of who we genuinely are and what events, described with an honesty quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for. In the best books, it’s as if the writer knows us better than we know ourselves — they find the words to describe the fragile, weird, special experiences of our inner lives… Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves, so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia or persecution…As the writer Emerson remarked: “In the works of great writers, we find our own neglected thoughts.”

It prepares you for failure

All of our lives, one of our greatest fears is of failure, of messing up, of becoming, as the tabloids put it, “a loser.” Every day, the media takes us into stories of failure. Interestingly, a lot of literature is also about failure — in one way or another, a great many novels, plays, poems are about people who messed up… Great books don’t judge as harshly or as one-dimensionally as the media. They evoke pity for the hero and fear for ourselves based on a new sense of how near we all are to destroying our own lives.

Sylvia Plath, reading.

Sylvia Plath, reading.

The essay concludes with a fitting tribute to literature, and perhaps the most salient answer to that damnable question we first started with – “what is literature for?”

The creators say: “Literature deserves its prestige for one reason above all others — because it’s a tool to help us live and die with a little bit more wisdom, goodness, and sanity.”

We here at Nothing in the Rulebook couldn’t agree more. Why not complement this video essay with musings on the ecstasy of reading, and then peruse some of essential summer and autumnal reading lists.

About the School of Life

The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm and how better to understand, and where necessary change, the world.

11 thoughts on “What is literature for?

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