Why should we read literature?

“I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.”

- Sylvia Plath (Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath)

We wake up every day; Go to our work, which we may or may not like; Come back to home exhausted; Indulge in something that may chase away our sense of fatigue like spending time with family or trying to escape from family into our own shell or by just being home; Then we sleep only to wake up the next day and continue our routine.

As we step up our career ladder, the routine may change into another routine. But still, routine is a routine is a routine. This different forms of routine continues till we retire and then we will create another routine which continues till we pass away. Memento Mori.

We live a life, only one life at a time. People who are adventurous may live a few lives at a time, by seeing a lot of places and people, moving around with different people. Not all people are adventurous and lucky enough to live more than one life. Our culture also places a great deal of respect on the word “settled” than the word “wandering around”.

Some faiths talk about unlimited number of births and deaths, transmigration of soul while some other faiths talk about an infinite afterlife. These conjectures may or may not be true. The most certain truth is we have one life which we can live in only one way and can experience it in only one way.

Literature opens a window for us and offers us an escape from our mundane, monotonous life. It clothes us with the skin of other people, people from other time, another culture and helps us experience life in multitude of ways.

To the non-reader, who is a literate, even the idea that one might read for pleasure might seem bizarre. A reader who had experienced the pleasure of living in many skins might wonder why all people aren’t reading.

What makes literature so special is it represents a culture, a period of time. It provides people with a sense of identity. It would not be possible to draw up a narrative of Tamil culture without Sangam literature, nor would it be possible to talk about English culture without invoking Shakespeare. Literary symbols also attract reverence in modern times and are important in establishing a coherent social identity.

The same could also be said about other forms of artistic expression like music, painting, sculpture etc. Without Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci European culture would not be the same today. But what differentiates literature and other forms of artistic expression is that other forms embodies culture in an abstract way, whereas literature embodies culture in a more concrete way by giving it a form which can be remembered by mortal human beings- words.

Literature also piques our curiosity to explore other forms of knowledge like psychology, sociology, anthropology, history etc. Knowledge available to human beings is embedded at the literature created at that age. Literature also speaks of human condition at the age of history, hence when reading literature chronologically one could understand the flow of history and condition of people of the particular culture.

Literature delves deep into human psyche, discusses the making and breaking of social relationships, raises and answer questions about being human. It represents the collective consciousness of the culture at the particular point of time.

Literature provides us with companionship that is humanly impossible. We are social animals; hence we do not prefer others to see our vulnerabilities, our gloomy side out of fear of rejection and awkwardness. We follow established social norms for communication even in most intimate of our relationships. Very few people were able to break such inhibitions.

Literature exposes the vulnerability of human beings and the dark side of being human by setting human beings as characters in various combinations and permutations of situations. What would happen when a young, city bred man becomes a civil servant in a remote district? We would get “English, August”. What would happen when assassins from different backgrounds converge to take the life of a journalist? We would get “The story of my assassins”.

Literature also delves deep into the human mind. Neela. Padmanabhan’s “Pallikondapuram” almost happens completely in a man’s mind. Such transparency, in exposing the human mind is not possible in other forms of artistic expression.

In some cases, literature may also expose the vulnerability of the author, such as the confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath. By reading the poetry of Sylvia Plath one could understand the anxieties of a young woman and make sense about the path of her life as she matures from a young girl to a young woman and then to a wife and a mother. It would be extremely difficult to untangle Sylvia Plath’s life and literature as both are almost the same.

Reading literature does not always end in pleasure. Sometimes it may also lead to exquisite mental pain and agony. I still remember the exquisite agony and gloominess that had befallen me after reading Sylvia Plath’s “Bell Jar”. This is because we empathize with the characters, we live in their skins, and we feel what they feel. Thus our sense of empathy is sharpened by literature.

Literature helps in acquiring a sense of destiny. The truth of fiction is immutable than the truth of science. Whereas scientific truth is subject to change according to the facts and new discoveries, fictional truth has no such limitations placed by facts. Romeo and Juliet are dead; nothing the reader could do can wake them, though they never existed. The acceptance of fictional truth helps a reader in accepting the facts of life as it is presented.

Literature helps us live an infinite number of lives; to live and to die in different space and time; expands the possibility of the single life we have at least temporarily.

Music, movies and literature provide joy to the human mind. We experience immense pleasure when we discover a good movie, listen to a good piece of music for the first time. Similarly let us experience great pleasure in discovering our next book. Good luck!

A cinephile, musicophile, bibliophile and to add another sin, a writer.