Why Literature Matters

To break the monotony of writing about books and poetry, or, perhaps, as a better way of putting off studying for exams till tomorrow, I’ve decided to write about why literature is important. Now, many people have talked about this before, but mine is newer and therefore better (cf. Barney Stinson; he knows where it’s at). The three main reasons I want to discuss are literature’s beauty; its connection with one’s own life, and finally the discussion of different ideas. These aren’t all the reasons, and were I to write this post an hour from now, I’d probably come up with three different reasons. Nevertheless, these are part of the Great List which describes why literature is important, and they’re the ones that amuse me to discuss currently. So, without further ado, be prepared to have my own opinions hammered into  you for the next five minutes or so.

muses1The Muses

Firstly, literature is beautiful. It sounds odd now that I’ve put it on paper (or, perhaps, onscreen). But it’s true: at the most basic level, literature can contain a pleasing sound or movement of words, that nothing else can match, even music, because there’s the childish joy of making sounds that have some meaning to them. Take The Owl and the Pussycat, it has some of the most pleasing sounds in the English language – who doesn’t fell like a gleeful child at the rhythm and sound of ‘Oh let us be married! Too long we have tarried:’ or even ‘And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood/ With a ring at the end of his nose/ His nose.’ Yes, perhaps it is childish, but I think everyone is childish at heart, and really spend their times huffing and puffing and saying to themselves that they’re so busy and really are Very Serious people, like the mushroom in The Little Prince. Childish sounds and pleasing rhythms aside, there is beauty in imagery, which calls one’s mind to feel and empathise and understand better than anything else; I myself have always felt such pleasure in Abide With Me:

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

A morbid image, perhaps, but, regardless, beautiful. Then again, many more come to one’s mind, the description in Gormenghast of a wild woman awakening from her rest in a tree; Belloc’s description of the haunting beauty of the Spanish mountains; the careful rhythmic description of sailing in Stevenson’s Treasure Island, mimicking the gentle sloshing rhythm of waves; how Horace describes love-struck Sybaris, who hates the sunny fields and fears to wash in golden Tiber without Lydia. All these examples and more, I’m sure the Dear Reader can think of other descriptions or sounds that haunt, that overwhelm with beauty.  But what’s the point of beauty in words? Why care I for sound? Because it makes life pleasant, it raises one’s mind and soul from the tiresome and mundane to beauty, and that is something definitely worth doing. Painting and music can do so as well, but there’s something in words, that engage the mind, the understanding, and the thoughts better than all else, since language is such an essential part of humanity.

Next, we come from beauty to its logical disciple: literature connects with life. Many other media do, too; but they lack the simple feeling and emotion of literature. Take, for example, the above quote from Abide With Me; in few simple words, the verse pulls up the fear and change and decay of life, and ends with a pleading exhortation to God.That is for the religiously minded, maybe, for the patriotic there is ‘Her [England] sword is girded by her side, her helmet upon her head, and around her feet are lying the dying and the dead. I hast to Thee, my mother, a son among thy sons.’ For the homesick ‘Hearts that would have given their blood like water beat heavily across the Atlantic roar.’ For those missing old friends, there’s ‘No man knoweth our desolation/ Memory pales of the old delight;/ While the sad waters of separation/ Bear us on to the ultimate night.’ For the joyful, the pleasant effervescence of Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin. But for all these transient feelings, literature puts into words thoughts one barely can face alone: ‘But you couldn’t enjoy the fact that he was in a good mood, because it was the kind of good mood that was just on the edge of a bad one. They were all waiting for him to cross over…’ I know the sentiment behind the words, but never could I paint such an eloquent picture of such a person; then again, in Titus Alone, there’s the eloquent depiction of Titus’ fear of entrapment, being ensnared in other people’s expectations. Again, from Cicero ‘Not for ourselves alone are we born.’ But it’s more than just expressions of sentiments, it’s encouragement and exhortation and understanding. Nothing breaks the weight of despair like Invictus, nothing encourages honour better than Wren’s Beau Geste or The Wages of Virtue; little understands growing into adulthood as The Drummer Boy or The Red Badge of Courage. All this, and more; again, the Dear Reader probably has books or poems that have changed, summoned sentiments barely expressed or, sometimes, even hardly recognised; that have changed them, called them to be better and more, that consoled or encouraged them to rise above.

Lastly, how literature discusses and engages the reader in ideas. This is one of greatest parts of literature, as it pulls up themes, issues, ideas for discussion with the reader. Nothing can convince or change one’s mind better than an internal debate with literature, and nothing can elucidate as well. For example, if you really want to understand horrific war, All Quiet on the Western Front will help you better than many other methods; if you really want to gain a deeper understanding of Catholicism or sacrifice for higher ideals, The Power and the Glory pulls in the reader, and explains and discusses better than many other things. The Unbearable Bassington puts great understanding of people, and gives insight. That’s not to say all literature must be allegory, must be written to teach, inform, or convince, as heavy-handedness spoils even the most beautiful explanations. As Tolkien says, literature, as an essential part of its nature, has applicability to the thought and experience of the reader, but should not have allegory: ‘one resides in the freedom of the reader, the other in the purposed domination of the author.’  Take Mistress America (yes, a film, but screen-writing is literature too, to me); the author had his own view of the movie’s point, yet I interpret completely differently, loving Brooke, which is what makes the movie great, and lessons of the film I can apply to my life. Not everything must have this applicability; but good literature is insightful, shows, experiences; and the reader draws, from its beauty and connection to life, lessons and understandings, expressions of thoughts and feelings, beauty and more.


That’s three reasons why I feel literature matters. There are more, some as important, others more so, some less; some cross over with other arts; I feel my point on beauty applies to architecture even, as Ruskin would argue. But this is just for literature, and these are some of the ones closest to my heart, at least in this moment.  I hope the Reader finds it interesting, or, at least, amusing, whether or not Dear Reader agrees or disagrees.

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