We have a general sense that these sort of
places are filled with things that are deeply important,
but what exactly is literature good for? Why should we spend our time reading novels
or poems when out there, big things are going on. Let’s have a think about some of the ways
literature benefits us.. Of course, it looks like it’s wasting time,
but literature is ultimately the greatest time-saver, for it gives us access to a range
of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millenia to try to experience
directly. Literature is the greatest ‘reality simulator’,
a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you could 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. Or make a terrible mistake while leading your
country. It lets you speed up time:
in order to see the arc of a life from childhood to old age It gives you the keys to the palace, and to
countless bedrooms, so you can assess your life in relation to
that of others. It 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 cost, turns us into citizens of the world. Literature performs the basic magic of showing
us what things look like from 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 typically 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 that can’t afford
airtime in a commercialised, status-conscious and cynical world. We are weirder than we’re allowed 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 are actually like, 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: – the light on a summer morning
– the anxiety we felt at the gathering – the sensations of a first kiss
– the envy when a friend told us of their new business – the longing we experienced on the train, looking at the profile of another passenger
we never dare to speak to 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 and persecution. As the writer Emerson remarked: ‘In the
works of great writers, we find our own neglected thoughts.’ Literature is a corrective to the superficiality
and compromises of friendship. Books are our true friends, always to hand,
never too busy, giving us unvarnished accounts of what things are really like. All of our lives, one of our greatest fears
is of failing, 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 and poems are about people
who’ve messed up, people… …who slept with mum by mistake … who let down their partner … or who died after running up some debts
on shopping sprees. If the media got to them, they’d make mincemeat
out of them. But 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. But if literature can really do all these
things, we might need to treat it a bit differently to the way we do now. We tend to treat it as a distraction, an entertainment
(something for the beach). But it’s far more than that, it’s really
therapy, in the broad sense. We should learn to treat it 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. Literature deserves its prestige for one reason
above all others: because it’s a tool to help us live and die with a little more wisdom,
goodness and sanity.