The Importance of Literature
In the midst of a childhood that had left me feeling like I didn’t have much promise, I discovered the novel, David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens. In the novel, David overcomes many hardships in order to finally create a rather nice life for himself.
Twenty years later, I started my first job as an English teacher at a high school where I discovered several dusty class sets of the novel way in the back of the bookroom. I decided on the spot to teach it to my Seniors and pulled out a copy to start rereading it. I found to my mortification that I couldn’t read more than a few pages at a time without feeling flooded with emotion. By the time I finished it, I had gone through a catharthis. While I hadn’t quite realized my dream of becoming a writer, I had found an equally suitable profession—and had started a family—in fact, I had suceeded in making a rather nice life for myself, and David had helped to show me the way.
My students often ask me: what is the big deal about literature? And it has taken me years to formulate a response that satisfies me. What follows is my answer and it is based on a deeply held belief, which is that literature is essential to becoming fully human:
As human beings, who we are is a function of who we think we are. The “self” that we take for granted most of the time is actually pretty fluid. You can see it in the way in which a difficult challenge, when we meet it head on, turns us into a deeper, more fully realized person. You can see it in the way tragedy forces us to rethink our purpose in life and our relationship to others.
But while some people get stuck, others keep growing and changing and consider themselves lucky. And what we need to keep growing and changing is what I call “big picture’ imagination. We build “big picture” imagination in many ways: by playing, by dreaming, by learning about new things, by travelling. But for imagining other places and times and for getting inside the lives of other people, nothing beats literature.
Mark Twain once said, “if you don’t read good books, you have no advantage over someone who can’t.” The main advantage that the reading of good books gives us is that it teaches us to imagine being different than we are right now. The disadvantage is that if we don’t read those good books, it is more difficult to imagine ever being different. In short, nothing builds “big picture” imagination like literature, and a large, healthy imagination is essential to becoming fully human because, if we’re stuck, we are not realizing our full potential. After all, how can we create a better life for ourselves—how can we make the world a better place to live in—if we can’t imagine it first.
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