Can reading literature make us better people?
I have often wondered what it is about literature that intrigues us so much, and why many deem it valuable for society. To solve my smouldering inquisitiveness, I had to first ascertain whether literature was indeed relevant in today’s world. Literature is, after all, an abstract account of some stranger’s imagination and perspective, right? A fragment of what some would describe as art – articulately selected words strung together by a wordsmith to craft sentences in a bid to bedazzle an audience—poetic lines overflowing with abstract meaning that briefly teleport the reader to an alternate reality.
One could even argue that literature is entirely redundant from a historical standpoint. We possess verifiable history books that enable us to travel into the past with a good degree of certainty, precision and authenticity – so why would we want to read fiction? Moreover, why on earth would we want to study literature at all? Surely, reading literature is an act performed merely to pursue a transitory pleasure? For those, of course, who obtain pleasure from such laborious pastimes.
There are, however, a few aspects we must ponder before we make such impetuous assumptions – how have so many books of literature bore the test of time? It makes perfect sense that essential documents and journals are preserved and archived for the betterment of humanity, but how have certain novels shielded themselves from the brutality and erosion of time?
Could it be that literature exposes matters concerning life at a particular time and place that history books do not?
History books and other nonfictional documents of historical accounts provide us with facts and figures, names and dates of specific historical events. However, they often deny us of the crucial lessons history has to offer. This is where fictional literature excels. Fiction, though it is, in fundamental nature, anecdotes in tune with the author’s narrative, will not only entertain but will audaciously inform, question and explore an array of extraordinary philosophies.
Humans have shared cultures, ideas and experiences through stories for thousands of years – stories are a way of processing and bring experiences to life.
Great novels inspire, offer different perspectives, underscore social ills, anxieties and troubles about the past, present and the future, and notably, ask questions. Difficult, uncomfortable questions. They do not typically desire to answer the questions but certainly aim to ask the genuine ones. These questions could relate to love, lust, betrayal, social injustice, crime, politics, war… the list can go on almost infinitely, but the commonality is that the stories all share deep sentimental, philosophical morals, meanings and matters. They provide us with an insight into ‘other’ people’s perspectives, making us more understanding, tolerant and empathetic as a species.
Great authors from the past were an amalgamation of deep thinkers, anthropologists, psychologists and social reformers. Their books were, in principle, lies, but their notions were mostly true, sometimes far more truthful and sincere than the history books we so convincingly clutch as conclusive evidence. If we, purely, for example, juxtapose the Great Gatsby with works of historical facts around the time of 1922, we may well derive two distinctly different inklings of what life in Long Island was like in the ’20s. The novel, as opposed to rigid documentation, will provide significant details, and the devil is in the details. We see the world, or the US, in the ’20s through the lens of the narrator who eloquently exposes polarisation, classes and various other problems at the time through tactful inference. The author wanted the reader to know that the American dream was great, but it certainly was not for everyone, despite the way it was sold. This makes his work somewhat valuable in attaining a comprehensive understanding of what life was actually like back then.
Novels like The Great Gatsby, along with many works from exceptional authors like Dickens and Orwell did, in many ways, shape our modern society. They did this insightfully, skilfully, allegorically and honestly – and ‘honestly’ typically meant not diplomatically. They often used the craft of writing as a weapon to counter prejudice, persecution, oppression and tyranny – which as you can imagine did not make them enormously popular.
Above all, literature is a means to have an open and honest conversation with someone from the past, perhaps from a place you have never been, will never go, and from a perspective you may never have appreciated had you not picked up that book. Through literature, we can look at the world through the eyes of someone exceedingly rich or destitute, someone ill or dying, have disabilities, etc. Books are, without a doubt, experience simulators, allowing us to ‘safely’ feel murdering someone, cheating, making good and bad decisions, and then let us face the consequences of these actions. This not only impacts our decisions but impacts how we live our lives. Dare I say it; it may even make us better people.
Although there are other ways in which we now communicate stories such as video and radio, reading is more of an active exercise. Watching a film is a passive approach to a story; it does not leave your imagination with much room to explore. Books, in a way, are dependent on the reader to fill in the gaps and use their imagination and, at times, their interpretation. This makes them unique in so many ways – it is almost as if the book is written by both the writer and the reader.
In summary, studying history through history textbooks is comparable to examining a corpse, and that is perfectly reasonable, but reading novels is a way to bring the past back to life. Literary fiction adds profound hue to monochrome aspects of our being that we are sometimes too afraid to explore. It is often said that reading makes you smarter, but I think it does much more than that, it makes you wiser and more sensitive to others. It makes people from all walks of life more relatable. And it is this understanding and tolerance that makes us more human. Although we do sometimes choose to hate, our natural disposition is not to hate. Hate is matured over years of indoctrination, mostly through ignorance and distortion, and I firmly believe that it is when we get to know one another that we can truly appreciate and love one another.
It is evident that reading can make us different people – being a better person will always be a personal choice.
I will leave you with one of my favourite quotes from Emerson:
“In the works of great writers, we find our own neglected thoughts.”