By Helen Beth Driver
Faculty Member, School of Arts, Humanities and Education
One question that I am often asked as an English instructor is, “What’s the point of reading literature?” To me, asking that question is like wondering why we breathe or eat.
Experiencing literature is the nature of human existence. Humans tell stories – stories to entertain, connect, escape and understand. We also tell our stories through novels, show them through movies and sing stories through ballads.
Unfortunately, many believe literature to be boring, cold and dead. However, meaningful works of literature exist; they are alive and warm, filled with emotion and meaning.
The better question to ask is, “What do we have to gain from the stories we tell?” In essence, what do we gain from our literary experiences?
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Literature Highlights the Human Experience
Literature creates a relationship with its audience – highlighting what it means to be human. We all have unique qualities. However, we also share similar experiences as people: birth, time, sickness, loneliness, disappointment and death.
“It’s a trip, you know? When you’re a kid, you….you see the life you want, and it never crosses your mind that it’s not gonna turn out that way.” – Monica Wright in “Love and Basketball”
These experiences have not changed throughout human history. Consequently, literary works illustrating these experiences are still relevant, even if a literary work was created hundreds of years ago.
Literature Helps Us Escape from Reality
Sometimes we just want to get away from our lives, especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic. We want to live in a different world, be someone else and escape from the daily drudgery.
Literature lets us virtually achieve those goals. We tell stories about worlds far away, worlds that never could exist and unique beings that have abilities far beyond our own.
We get to live life through different eyes. We get to go inside another world and escape.
Literature Helps Us Understand Historical Events
When we read a history book, the events can become dull and we don’t “feel” them. However, when we experience a historic event through a story’s characters, we understand history on a deeper level.
Experiencing literature gives us firsthand access to historic events by through the eyes of people who lived through those events. It is within these historical viewpoints and the feelings of others, where we really understand what happened and how it affected everyday lives. When we hear stories from others, we learn about their experiences and understand historical events on a deeper level, which connects all of us to human history.
“They are committing the greatest indignity human beings can inflict on one another: telling people who have suffered excruciating pain and loss that their pain and loss were illusions.” – Elie Wiesel, “Night”
Literature Helps Us Understand Other People
Think of it this way: Your view of the world is filtered through your eyes – one perspective. However, to really understand the world, you need to use multiple perspectives, for every new perspective helps us better understand reality.
“Unless you let me be an individual, an “I,” just as you are, you will never truly be able to come inside my silence and know me.” – Sarah Norman in “Children of a Lesser God”
Literature allows us to put on a different pair of glasses – one that gives us access to someone who, on the outside, appears to be completely different. Reading literature allows us to understand and relate to these differences and fill in the gaps in our understanding of other people.
Literature Helps Us Feel Connected to Society
Characters are like people. Often, characters react in the same way as we do and experience similar situations.
Have you ever read a book and thought to yourself – “I do that!” or “I can relate to that”? Reading literature helps us understand that our reactions and actions are normal, not strange, behavior.
Knowing that we are like others, we learn that we aren’t alone. We aren’t the only ones to experience loss, lust, confusion and fear. Through reading literature, we understand that our emotions are human.
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Storytelling Is Part of the Human Experience
We all love stories. We listen to ballads. We watch plays, television shows, and movies, and we read novels. Just like we breathe, eat or drink, we tell stories. We tell those stories to connect, to feel, and to understand.
Storytelling – creating literature – is part of the human experience. It’s simply what humans do.
Try to imagine a world without stories – without literature. Guess what? You can’t. Because when you create this cold, empty world in your mind, you are telling yourself a story.
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