More on the value of literature and reading

Through reading (and through the study of literature), we rehearse the great dilemmas of life, both personal and social. We find ourselves asking the big philosophical questions: How should I live? What is the good life? What is love? What is justice? And what does it all add up to? Literature is not philosophy, it’s not psychology and it’s certainly not religion or theology. But it is a form of knowledge that tells us about who we are, about ourselves, our society and our culture. Milan Kundera calls it a “parallel history”. Through the novel, he argues, we encounter all the dimensions of existence, from “the nature of adventure” to “the secret life of the feelings” to “the role of myths from the remote past”, and on. Reading enables us to reflect on elements of existence we don’t encounter anywhere else, and to do it in a unique way. It enables us, in the words of Virginia Woolf, “to learn through feeling”.

That’s Ann-Marie Priest, an academic at Central Queensland University, wondering, in The Australian, what practical value literature has. One can obviously read for pleasure, but base pleasure isn’t ultimately pleasurable now is it? Aristotle saw this. He suggested a balance should be met between what’s good for you and what’s good for others. But I don’t have to casually misrepresent Aristotle to convince you of the value of literature and reading, do I? Literature, what do you have there, between the lines?

At the height of World War I, Woolf speculated that “the reason why it is easy to kill another person must be that one’s imagination is too sluggish to conceive what his life means to him – the infinite possibilities of a succession of days which are furled in him, & have already been spent”. Reading is one way of stimulating a sluggish imagination to discover what other people’s lives are to them. That revelation in itself must make it harder to do harm.

I know a social worker who is convinced that reading fiction helps violent young men control their violence simply by making them aware that others feel pain too. The same principle – the development of empathy – underlies the argument that literature should be taught to professionals of all stripes. An Australian professor of psychiatry … argued that medical students should study literature and art to give them an understanding of illness from the point of view of the sufferer, and to teach them compassion. And young law students take literature courses in droves not only as an antidote to the tedium of studying tax or corporation law but also because it broadens their perspective and exposes them to the insides of other people’s heads.

As for solace and counsel, what passionate reader has not turned to books again and again for both? Unlike Adelaide, I think it perfectly appropriate to prescribe Tennyson’s In Memoriam for the bereaved. I once read parts of In Memoriam with someone who was in the dull, advanced stage of grieving, and he found it immensely cathartic. The poem’s extravagance was the perfect expression of the uncontainable quality of his own feeling, and he was even able to find some ironic distance, as well as emotional release, in its sentimentality.

More here. I left out Literature’s cure for the sexually repressed. You at least have to read that. Or maybe you don’t, you freaky book-lovers.

5 responses to “More on the value of literature and reading”

  1. Hmmm. On the one hand, as an avid lover of Literature, I agree, but on the other… She says literature may make people less violent, may make them less likely to kill others, but then at the end says that it probably won’t make them more moral, just more thoughtful.I dunno, I guess it just reminds me of the same old Romantic line about the salvific power of capital-A Art, and literature profs as the high priests.

  2. Particularly this bit: “Heaven itself, she once wrote, has no further joy to bestow on those who read,” from Woolf.Try as I might, I just can’t like Woolf. She seems so precious and self-absorbed. And I’m always reminded of her petulant temper tantrum when she found out T.S. Eliot had become an Anglican – she declared him dead to her. How dare he do such a thing, she sobbed to her sister.And then, of course, she killed herself. I’m always a bit wary of people who urge us to emulate the life courses of despairing suicides – Woolf, Hemingway, Crane, Cobain…

  3. I see what you mean, Elliot. I do think the article gives a fair presentation of the moral virtues of literature, though. That is, that it might be virtuous and then again it mightn’t. Its sort of an in-between attitude for critics like Bloom who sometimes seem to think the values of literature are only for the self, and critics like Myron Magneto who seem to only see value in literature’s ability to realize, “the potentialities for excellence and happiness that nature implants in us.”Also, not to defend Woolf or anything but one should be prepared for an encounter with the numinous wherever they turn their eyes even if it is just to words, words, words. But, yeah, no further joy…Moreover, I’m just generally wary of Woolf. Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Me.

  4. Oh, I meant to write:critics like Myron Magneto who seem to only see value in literature’s ability to ensure the survival of the social order and realize, “the potentialities for excellence and happiness that nature implants in us.”or something more contrasty with Bloom.

  5. Hmmm, yeah, I see your point. It is an in-between kind of attitude.

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