In a meeting at the university where I teach, a colleague bemoaned that, after years of research in Writing Studies, no one had yet found a sure path to turn students into good writers. It may not be a magic solution but the answer to the problem is out there: it is reading! The correlation between an avid reader and a proficient writer is well known to parents who encourage their children to read from early on and to schoolteachers who strive to instill in their students a love for literature. But if the reading-writing connection appears to be a truism, it is trickier to assess the broader impact of literature in our lives. Does literature make us good and, conversely, is it good for us?
Are we happier after finally finishing The Magic Mountain? Will all murderers repent once they read the uplifting ending of Crime and Punishment? Will we become smarter by going through the Collected Poems of TS Eliot?
Defenders of literature usually attempt to justify it in one of two ways. Some follow a utilitarian approach and contend that reading does us good, makes us more intelligent and teaches us things we would have otherwise never known. Others prefer an ethical-moral argument and conceive of literature as a path to turning readers into better human beings. Let us revisit these positions in our attempt to determine why literature matters.
Literature is good for you
I recently started an undergraduate class that focused on Brazilian novels in English translation by asking students why they read literature. Their improvised answers amounted to a catalogue of the most salient points on the “literature-is-good-for-you” side of the debate. Unsurprisingly, students were unanimous in saying that reading literature was crucial for their education (after all, they were sitting in a literature class and were most likely eager to be in the good graces of the professor).
Many students believed that reading would give them a better command of the language and improve their competence as writers. Several commented that the textual analysis and interpretation skills they acquired by reading and discussing works of literature would be useful in other fields of study and in their future professional lives. A few also mentioned that literature offered them insights into other cultures and epochs, in this particular case, 19th and 20th-century Brazilian society. In short, students thought that literature was good for them in that it honed their interpretive, argumentative and critical thinking skills and broadened their knowledge.
At a time when literature is forced to compete with other forms of entertainment, arguments such as the ones my students vocalised have become common currency. Literature advocates stress that, in reading, we combine pleasure with learning and therefore make the most of the time allotted to relaxation in our busy schedules. But if literature is nothing more than a way to acquire skills and knowledge, could it not be replaced, say, by documentaries or by educational videogames?
If the reading-writing connection appears to be a truism, it is trickier to assess the broader impact of literature in our lives.
Another widespread argument made in defence of literature points to its ability to turn readers into better human beings. Those who espouse this view postulate the existence of an intrinsic – though rather mysterious – link between enjoying good poetry or classical novels and making the right moral decisions.
Yet, the apology of literature on ethical and moral grounds has been contested at least since Ancient Greece. To be sure, for Aristotle, literature, and especially tragedy, made us morally better, in that it purged us of negative emotions and impulses in a process known as catharsis. However, Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, was of a different opinion. He thought that poets and the fake images of reality they spun in their texts were noxious to society, so much so that he unceremoniously banished them from his ideal city.
What does literature have to say for itself on this matter? How have writers depicted the effects of their craft? Seen through the eyes of its own creators, literature has been judged rather harshly.
For instance, in Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century opus magnum, literature neither makes you good nor is it good for you. In fact, Quixote goes mad from reading too many of the chivalric novels popular at the time and from trying to emulate the deeds described in these writings. More than two centuries later, Gustave Flaubert’s most famous heroine, Emma Bovary, is driven to adultery and later suicide, partly due to the negative influence of romantic novels, where she read about handsome lovers and a glamorous lifestyle that contrasted starkly with the dullness of her own existence.
Reading has myriad effects
But if literature does not necessarily make you good and is certainly not the only form of entertainment that is good for you, what is it really for? Does literature still matter and, if so, why?
The problem with most arguments in the debate about reading is that they posit literature as an instrument used to achieve a certain goal: either the good of the individual (it is good for you) or the good of society (it makes you good). Leaving aside the issue of deciding whether what makes you good is not, ultimately, good for you, a more fundamental question arises: why does literature need to be defended at all?
The anxiety to justify literature is symptomatic of our age, when all activities should have an easily identifiable objective. The difficulty with literature, as well as with music or the fine arts, is that it has no recognisable purpose or, in Immanuel Kant’s elegant formulation, it embodies “purposiveness without purpose”. Reading certainly has myriad effects, but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how it influences each person and harder still to translate this impact in terms of quantifiable gains.
Literature breaks the continuum of the everyday and makes us stop and think. The linguistic experimentation that is the hallmark of the literary estranges us from the most commonplace of tools, our language, while the fictional elements of novels, plays and poems offer us a glimpse into a reality that is not our own. In doing so, reading affords us an essentially human of experience: the realisation that what is does not necessarily need to be, that things can be different and that another world is possible. The struggle with or the embrace of a work of literature shapes our hopes and fears, dreams and ambitions. Literature matters, ultimately, because it makes us who we are.
Patricia Vieira teaches at the Department of Spanish and Portuguese of Georgetown University. She is the author of Seeing Politics Otherwise: Vision in Latin American and Iberian Fiction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011); Portuguese Film 1930-1960: The Staging of the New State Regime (Lisbon: Colibri, 2011; forthcoming with Continuum, 2013); and co-editor of Existential Utopia: New Perspectives on Utopian Thought (New York and London: Continuum, 2011).