While according to Google search results literature is “written work, especially those with superior or lasting artistic merit,” to me, literature is every written work that challenges the reader to think about new situations and ideas. Many people – especially well-educated adults – frequently pointed out the importance of literature in my life. “It is culture,” or “It is common knowledge,” are two explanations that always return when I question the meaning of literature. But what do these quick answers actually mean?
Before we answer this question, let’s take a step back and imagine a boy in society who grows up not reading “literature” (not unrealistic image today). This boy goes to school and learns mathematics, grammar of the English language, maybe a foreign language, the basics of natural sciences, and maybe even something about religion and humanities. After school he plays sports with his friends for a few hours. Then he comes home, does his homework and at the end of the day he watches TV for one hour before going to bed. He does well in school, he has a great social life, and in the evening he has something to relax to. Everything seems to be fine, nothing essential is missing. As he grows up, he maintains his schedule, because it works well for him. Is it necessary for him to read literature to be happy or successful in life? No, absolutely not. Is something valuable missing in his life? Maybe.
When we read literature, we dive into another world. This new world can be very similar to ours, but most of the time it will not. This new world has a different social structure, different authorities, different rules, and different values. People in this world might think differently. Regardless of how much is different or similar, literature usually pulls us into this new world and rarely lets us go easily. While we are reading, we forget the real world around us, we forget our problems, challenges, feeling for time, and sometimes even where we are because in this moment it does not matter where we are, it matters where the protagonist, our projected self is and which challenges the character faces.
In books, we are confronted with new situations, with new possibilities and with new decisions. When we read, our brains not only process the written words, but it also thinks about the options that the protagonist has. Since we can always put the book aside and think about the content, our brains are much more active while reading than while watching TV. For example, when I am reading dystopian novels, I sometimes put the book aside in the middle of a chapter just to think about the life in our current society. In the book review I did for The Mire of “A People’s Future of the United States” edited by Victor LaValle and John Adams, I found myself more thinking about the situations, life in a future society, and possible solutions for the protagonist I read about than actually reading the words on the page. Since everyone thinks differently and has different opinions on certain decisions, every book is unique for each person.
“Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.”
― Angela Carter
The same book can have a different meaning for each person based on their real life situation when reading the book. Depending on the situation we experience in real life, we will find answers or new ideas for our real life problems from the same book.
Thereby, our thinking and judgement is challenged to decide, which eventually leads to an influence of our personality. Reading does not only strengthen our social skills of empathy through imagination, and thinking outside the box, but it also makes us more experienced and flexible with new situations.
In the end it is important to point out that literature should not change our personality, it should help develop it to become the person we want to be. So, do we need literature? No, but without it, we lose a great opportunity to experience new worlds.