Books are neither elitist nor populist: they are fundamental to our entire existence

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Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

Reading books is a way of studying human beings – ourselves – our ideas and our passions, our cultures and histories, our successes and our failures. So how did we reach a point where the literary world is increasingly divided by accusations of, variously, elitism or populism?

In the intriguing book Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, by the scholar James Turner, it is argued that what we might term ‘academic humanities’ subjects, such as classics, literature, anthropology and comparative arts studies, can be traced back to the splintering of the master discipline of “philology” – the pursuit of wisdom through the study of written words – in the late 19th century.

Literature, and the study of books and the written words of human beings, ought then to be the most accessible of academic disciplines. Indeed, it need not be seen as specifically academic at all. Because it is through the simple act of reading that wisdom is gained.

It might seem obvious, but the fact that the written words of books help us communicate universally applicable ideas to one another is one of the things that sets literature apart from, say, the sciences. Yes we can read, for instance, the scientific observations of theoretical physicists, but we won’t necessarily understand their meaning. Take this description of the point-like particles present in ‘String Theory’:

“Matter particles are usually fermions — particles with an intrinsic angular momentum (spin) that is half-integral in appropriate units. Force carriers like photons and gravitons are “bosons”, particles that carry integer spin. In fact, all the force carriers except the graviton have spin 1 in units of Planck’s constant, while the graviton has spin 2.”

The ideas contained within the scientific writing, then, are not universally applicable. On the other hand, the works of writers of literature are: for instance, you do not need to know the specific historical or cultural context of 19th century Russia to understand the universally recognisable core content and themes of a book like War and Peace or Anna Karenina – where we see characters become bored, fall in love, fall in love with someone else at the same time, get married, commit adultery, fight with rivals.

It has become taboo, in some academic circles, to think this way about fiction. From the 20th century onwards, students at universities studying literature will have likely encountered situations where they have been told it is an error to treat a literary character or scene as anything other than a rhetorical or linguistic or formal or gendered construct. Indeed, it is only by striving for the interpretation and “true meaning” (of which there are nearly always guaranteed to be an infinite number) of a book or story that we should read books, we are told. The act of reading thus is replaced by the act of analysing, evaluating, and theorising. It becomes our business not to empathise with characters but to deconstruct and critique them.

But of course the empathetic element of writing and reading is fundamental to the relationship between the reader and the written word. We develop attachments to fictional characters, simply, because we see ourselves in them. By reflecting characteristics we recognise, characters in books hold a mirror up to our world in a way that science or theoretical academic writing generally can’t.

Fortunately there has been a recent upward surge of writers, academics and literary critics who are increasingly willing to talk about the fundamentally enjoyable pleasure of reading for reading’s sake. The Canadian writer and editor, Alberto Manguel, for example, writes he “would rather describe himself as a reader” rather than a translator or critic.

In the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne wrote “books have been useful to me, less for instruction than as training.” This is perhaps the crux of the matter. When we ask the question ‘what is literature for?’, we can say it is – more than anything – about teaching us about the world, and how to be better human beings; books help us become who we want to be, in other words.

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