It’s no secret that reading is an important part of becoming a well-rounded, educated person. But what people don’t always realize is that there are different types of reading, and not all of them are created equal. Reading literature, in particular, is a special type of reading that’s so much more than a means to an end. Literature is a way of thinking and understanding the world — a way of experiencing the world — in a more profound way than you ever had before. That’s why literature is important.
Writers and thinkers of all stripes and disciplines have long debated what constitutes literature, as opposed to mere writing. Furthermore, not all literature is one thing — the University of Chicago’s Great Books reading list includes everything from the Navajo creation story ceremonially recited at the winter solstice, to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Ultimately, literature is any text that aims to shed light on an aspect of the human condition, through observation, introspection, careful analysis, or even pure creativity. It is an important source of knowledge, philosophy and beauty. Many works of literature have been described as timeless — stories and poems that will stand up to the scrutiny of future generations. Even if we never know how literature will be taught, read, or sold, the great works we keep will enrich generations and change minds forever.
And why do these works endure? Is it just that they’re unquestionably works of genius, or is something else going on? Although each person reading them will come to them in their own way, the commonalities may surprise you. First of all, these works are, straight up, without a doubt, idea-packed. Everything from existentialism and theology to romance and comedy play a part in many great book plots. And more often than not, the ideas are presented in creative, engaging formats. Although you may start and end your novels in similar ways — such as building a detailed protagonist — but still leave your readers with some challenge to consider. How you achieve this is up to you, but the important thing is you must include meaningful content or your novel may not be deemed literature. In short, learning how to write literature has to do with understanding your heritage as a writer.
Literature connects us
Literature is a means of connecting, of hearing the world and seeing the world through another person’s vantage. When you read a book you’re not simply taking information in, you’re taking a trip. You’re taking a journey outside your own experience, and learning about a new experience. That experience, be it of a different time, a different place, or a different person, is communicable to the reader.
Reading can open your mind and change the way you see the world. Reading is a skill, and all skills take time to develop in a meaningful way. But there are few skills more important for contemporary education than reading and its handmaiden, writing. When we say reading, we mean using the power of real language to create connections with a real person. Reading is the highest form of enjoyment, because it partakes in the activity of forming a line of communication with a mind unlike your own, and when you, the reader, share that with another mind, you form a third mind situated in between the two. The two minds, as different as they are, connect around a third mind, the book, which creates a complex web of dynamic thoughts and active engagement. No other form of communication can permit the amount of arguments and explorations that occur around the world. And very few other forms permit the complexities of creativity that can happen between two readers that adore a work — and two readers of a different background, who don’t agree with each other, talk in circles and listen and question.
You can’t read a great book without absorbing some instruction and gaining some form of entertainment. Books have the power to transport you to other worlds and make you feel as if you can fly. They can highlight your own inadequacies or ignite the imagination. And they can teach you about history and different points of view. Readers learn not just from the text on the page, but also from their own engagement with the text and their opportunity for reflection and deepened understanding.
There are tons of ways literature can supplement academic theory. For instance, take Harold Bloom, a literary critic who wrote a book called The Anxiety of Influence. That’s an interesting book about literature, but you couldn’t really use it for studying. It’s essentially a battle between Shakespeare and the then-nascent Romantic movement. But some people will say that Bloom’s theories justify their love or hate of a certain text. Much of the nonfiction we read in school is far more ambiguous. Literary criticism allows you to make real-world connections and explore complex philosophical theories. And it might even make you a better writer, as you think about why a certain text struck you with such power.
Language is a means of communication
The key to understanding why great works of literature are so important is learning how language fits into the greater whole of human experience. Every literary work has a language that resonates with its readers. A work that’s considered great is one where that language is the most efficient way to get a reader to feel a certain way. What that feeling is for one reader might be very different from what it is for another — it’s entirely subjective.
One of the reasons why diversity in literature is so important is because different voices allow us to hear stories we otherwise might not know about. You can explore feelings such as belonging, connection, and identity through literature by considering how your character’s voice and worldviews make your reader feel.
There aren’t many other mediums that can achieve this. Literature has the unique ability to be both psychologically intense and emotionally uplifting. Just as important as the narrative is the language used to advance it, because that language is what separates literature from any other medium, and helps us have strength through great books.
Allows perspective on real human experience
Whether you’re reading a mystery, a romance, or a nonfiction manual, when you crack the spine on that book, you’re making a decision to engage with the human experience. Let’s take Nancy Drew novels, for example. These novels are written to let you explore the experience of teenage girlhood by telling the story of an actual teenage girl. By reading and enjoying Nancy Drew books, you’re getting an inside view into another person, and by proxy, the real human experience. We call this voyeurism, but taken from the right perspective, it can be a positive part of your reading experience.
When we read literature, we’re not just diving into the human experience first-hand, but also in relation to others. Stories are what happens in between the lines of actual human experiences, and there’s reason to believe reading stories is as healthy for you as having lived an actual human experience. Not only do you have a chance to become a better person through literature, but you might just become a healthier, more empathetic person to those you love.
Humans are social animals, and nowhere is this more obviously present that in literature. Understanding how to write a book review provides skills and knowledge you can use to empathize with others. Empathy is an important skill to build, but it’s not the only one. Literature is more than enough to impart facts, because clever writers weave important facts into their stories and leave you feeling like you’ve learned something new. Literature can also teach you the geography, history, and culture of fantastic worlds. Layering in history and historical figures can impart an important message on what it means to be human. Putting fictional characters into difficult situations can teach you what good and evil look like, and get you to think about the ethical consequences of your own decisions.
Figuring out why people do things
When you read a book, you meet people from other places and cultures. You see how they approach problems and how they go about solving them, so that can help you approach your own problems in different ways. Narrative is about putting into words something that happened. What’s happening in the story is figuring out the truth in any story or non-fiction book. It’s figuring it out and trying to solve the problem, if the problem is actually solvable. If it’s solvable, that’s good, because it means you can do something and keep doing it and keep thinking about it and keep talking about it. But the bottom line is you have a sense of how people think and why they do what they do, and you have a lot of disparate lives to connect to, so you have a bigger sense of why people do what they do.
Great literature aims to describe human life, and people and characters are inherently different. Literature describes what others see as out of the ordinary in ordinary characters, or people that are ordinary in that they’re trying to do something. People in different environments aim to overcome their circumstances. Usually, they fail at first, then they do something, and then something changes so that they’re not reckless or rash. But it all comes back around because people continue to try and figure it out. And that’s the thing that literature calls for — to be curious, to explore, and to ask questions. It’s in that activity, in that activity of people struggling to speak, of people struggling to read and connect, that you see that the mark of being human isn’t universal, but there’s a commonality that people want to understand why they live and die and what it all means.
Inspire people to pursue better lives than mere status
Writers have always had a profound and largely unacknowledged ability to inspire nation-wide movements and changes in cultures. Novels like To Kill a Mockingbird, and Jane Austen’s novels changed the system of thinking for almost a century. A more recent example was The Kite Runner and The Girl at the Baggage Claim, which revealed the oppression and violence against women and children in Afghanistan one decade before international political entities were aware of those critical issues.
Shakespeare used his literature as a method to educate the Elizabethan people. In Elizabethan England, culture was considered to be an integral part of the aristocracy. All children were required to be educated and read by law. Shakespeare’s plays were used during this time as teaching tools to expand the children’s knowledge of history, psych, music and language. Shakespeare’s work proved these educational theories to be effective as scores of students throughout the years were able to astound their teachers with their ability to understand and speak the Elizabethan language.
Shows how similar we all are as humans
When you read a good work of literature, you’re often able to relate to the narrator on a level that you can’t with almost anything else. And it’s never more obvious than in trilogies like The Lord of the Rings, where you watch a complex hero like Frodo struggle with addiction in a way that pulls you in and makes you care more than a clinical psychology textbook ever would. Books about bullying, corruption, fame, political excess, and psychological trauma present real-world problems through the lens of fiction. On one hand, separating real-world problems from an individual life can make the characters’ trauma easier to cope with. The protagonist doesn’t have to deal with their trauma in the real world, and the reader doesn’t have to face the trauma in theirs. On the other hand, the memorable reactions and outcomes of these problems can allow readers to more closely connect their own traumas with those in the novel, offering them a chance to process them in a safe place.
Fiction isn’t purely about emotional experiences, either — there’s information to be gleaned from it as well. Through fiction, a good writer can articulate some problem facing the world, and simultaneously give the reader some of the same external perspective that professionals have on the issue. The reader can then imagine how they might personally respond to the issue, and perhaps come away inspired to create a solution — however large or small. This ability to immerse the reader in a meaningful context may also help readers connect to and empathize with problems they guessed or knew very little about.
Reading makes the world a smaller place
Books require you to enter the mind of the protagonist and make a connection with them. Books challenge your own prejudices and make you discover more about the world around you. With the wide variety of literature available, both old and new, there’s bound to be something that will speak to you and enrich you in ways you never imagined.
Reading is also a wonderful way to learn more about your identity and what you value. There will always be some degree of difference between you and characters, just as there’s a distance between you and the people you interact with. Reading helps eliminate the distance between you, literal and otherwise, by putting you into another character’s shoes. In the same way that you consume a character’s thoughts and feelings, you’re consuming someone else’s metaphor for their life experiences. Reading allows you to live with others and learn new things about yourself.
Picking up on patterns
The 21st century has already made it clear that we are living and thinking simultaneously in multiple realities. From clothing to language, subcultures to videogames, it’s easy to lock yourself into one perspective. Never before has there been a time when it was easier to cultivate a tunnel vision of your daily encounters, to forget other people’s difficulties, and to overlook different perspectives. The sheer number of choices we are offered by modern technology can be overwhelming, and we lose sight of the things that connect us as people, and that enable new learning opportunities. Reading literature can remind you to notice these things.
Reading literature and immersing yourself in the unfamiliar with an open mind means you could learn to perceive unseen patterns in human behavior, or the motivations of other characters. On a smaller scale, in more reflective works of literature, you gain emotional resonance with the story. Reading the works of authors from other time periods, or even other cultures, is an opportunity to learn new perspectives, and new ways of seeing the world around you. And if you aren’t exposed to the diversity of humanity’s brilliant minds and creativity, you might miss living experiences that could be invaluable to you as an introspective thinker.
The critical analysis in literature helps readers to become more self-aware. These analyses stretch the imagination and support multiple interpretations. There are several themes in literature that help teach a moral lesson and to highlight moral issues. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee deals with racism, The Awakening by Kate Chopin deals with the social issues of the time, and Calvin and Hobbes helps to shape a child’s moral framework. Also, literature allows people to experience points of view and emotions that they may not experience in everyday life. Literature gives readers the freedom and flexibility to explore.
When reading a piece of literature, it is necessary to comprehend what the author is writing about and how they approached the story from a particular point of view. Through literature, readers are able to find new perspectives that can open their mind to ask philosophical and ethical questions. Literature tends to change the way people think and encourages them to think about different cultures. Reading can enforce or change beliefs and create new ideas about the world. Literature allows people to experience a world that is unknown and can promote creativity.
Access often leads to understanding
Reading books introduces you to varying experiences and viewpoints, especially since we’re exposed to literature from a young age at home and at school. By reading about people different from you, you can expand your understanding of human experience. Just as you need to go out into the world and experience life in order to be a successful writer, you also need to learn about different people’s lives in order to empathize with them and encapsulate their experiences in fiction. When you literally expose yourself to different ways of thinking, you open yourself up to new ideas about the world — and find new ways to bring the world to life in your writing.
Literature also serves as a built-in escape — especially if you pick up a good, old-fashioned book you can hold, feel, and smell. Maybe you read as a form of escapism to get away from the ever-more-terrifying news cycle. Maybe you need to take a deep breath and focus, and an easy, enthralling tale is exactly the break you need. Maybe you need a reminder that not everyone is raised on social media, cellphones, and digital entertainment, so taking a few hours of down-time to luxuriate in a good story will make you a more worldly person.
Shows different views
The experience of a book is an immersive experience. In literature, an author can put any number of viewpoints through any number of experiences and give them greater depth and insight into that experience. When you read a book, you feel like you’re present for the experience that the author is writing, and you feel like you’re the protagonist, and it’s your experience that you’re living, if you can put yourself in their place. That’s the power of literature — it makes you realize that there are different experiences in the world, and people all experience them in different ways. And the portrayals within the book are drastically different from anything you’ve seen before in the slew of movies you’ve watched.
Also, in reading a book, when you picture the characters, it’s from what you get from the author. With a book, the author puts in a lot of different things that make two characters different — motivation, family, reputation, past, and the list goes on. But because you’re using your own imagination in putting what was only a few words on a page and turning it into a live picture, you’re able to better relate with these characters. This applies to any discrepancies you see in characters, too. They’re not just perfect and shallow for some reason — there’s something that causes the character to act the way they do, do the things that they do, and they react the way that they do. And that way, even if you don’t agree with how they’re deciding something, you can understand where they’re coming from. You can understand how they think. And that’s important.
Teach great writing styles
The act of writing is what allows for any of us to also be readers. So, the ability to write well provides everything that reading requires. Reading requires the use of excellent comprehension skills, developed by asking the right questions about what is being read. The ability to analyze what is being read and decipher the information is the first step to really gaining something out of what you read. Someone able to read and understand well can absorb more information from reading, so that they can go from desiring to read to getting something out of the act of reading too.
Provides an outlet for creativity
What effect does such a thrilling wrap-up of a story have on the reader? Long after the words are read, the effect lingers. The work has become part of you, and not a meaningless part, either.
Literature explores features of human life that go unreported, like star-crossed lovers, the emotions of a mother for her newborn, or the thought processes of someone dying of cancer. It immerses us in foreign worlds and allows us to experience historical eras we would never have seen otherwise. And when a novelist attempts an explanation of the cosmos or the depths of the human condition, the work is always more worthy of the effort, the moment you realize that you, the person who took in that writing, are also part of what they’ve captured — their words are creating you, even as they are being created.
Literature is important
Luckily for all of us, literature is alive and well in the 21st century. Despite bad reviews from critics and a tough fight against newer forms of entertainment, a recent study in academic literary studies shows us that literature isn’t fading away as some predicted. Instead, it seems to be adapting to the modern world. People are getting their entertainment and enjoyment from different media, but still looking to literature to illuminate authentic human experience. We may like to think we’re getting smarter thanks to Google and Wikipedia, but literature reminds us that we have a long history of comedy and tragedy that connects us to every human who has ever lived. In the ever-fickle world of entertainment, we need literature today more than ever.
When a book about some far-off place or time, or about the life of someone whose circumstances are completely different from your own, opens up a world that you’d never experienced before, how can you not be drawn into that world? The world through literature is not only a more exciting world, it’s a better world. It’s that hope for a better world that makes literature important.
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