Why Do We Read Literature

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A friend has recommended a new novel to you. You save it for the holiday and then, sitting out in the sun and feeling relaxed, you start reading. And something strange happens: the little black signs on the page before your eyes draw you into a world that has nothing to do with the sights and sounds of your surroundings, which quickly fade from your consciousness. Your thoughts are shaped by ideas that are not yours, your feelings are stirred by unfamiliar emotional currents, and your mind is populated by newly-minted images. People you have never encountered before become real to you, conversations unlike any you have taken part in resound in your ears, scenes foreign to your experience unfold around you. Even your body responds to this new world you have entered; your skin tautens or your eyes prick with incipient tears or you laugh out loud.

And yet—and this is what is strangest of all—you remain perfectly aware that you are reading a book, and that your experience of new thoughts, feelings, and images has been brought about by someone’s skilful handling of language, by his or her precise choice of words to convey sights and sounds, motions and emotions, sculpting sentences into sequences that amuse and arouse, arrest and lull, increase tension or achieve relaxation. You may know a great deal or nothing at all about this author; the words may have been written a year or several centuries ago. But your pleasure in being carried along by the fiction is enriched by your admiration for the creativity of the person who created it.

These are some of the remarkable features of an experience that we tend to take for granted. Of course, much of our reading of literature—in the broadest sense of that word—involves the enjoyment of what is familiar rather than the feeling of being taken into new worlds. But even the most formulaic of genre novels or the most conventional of poetic stanzas can surprise one with a little charge of the unfamiliar, a sense that the exact tinge of a colourful scene, or the fine nuance of an expertly conveyed emotion, breaks new ground in one’s appreciation of what it means to live on this earth.

The challenge for the literary critic or theorist, as I see it, is to understand and articulate this experience, which has its analogies in the other art forms too. Moreover, it is important to do so without becoming, on the one hand, captivated by the dream of reducing all aesthetic matters to the facts of scientific truth, or on the other hand, becoming prey to a mystical apprehension shrouded in vagueness and hyperbole. This is not to say that we can’t learn interesting details of the operations of the brain encountering a poem from cognitive theorists, or valuable sociological knowledge from carefully accumulated data sets; nor is it to devalue accounts of literary experience that are themselves highly literary. But when I read Donne’s “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” and feel all over again that clutch at the heart when the perfect rhymes reinforce the speaker’s loving reassurance; or when I see on stage once more—but always as if for the first time—human lives undergoing a sudden and dangerous transformation when Shakespeare’s Beatrice utters her sober command, “Kill Claudio,” no amount of scientific enquiry or lyrical imagery can do justice to the intensity and singularity of what I live through.

There are no doubt a number of different vocabularies and philosophical approaches that would be helpful in meeting this challenge; the language I have found most useful is drawn, above all, from the ethical thinking of Emmanuel Levinas (even though he did not himself rate literature very highly among human endeavours), the meditations on literature of Maurice Blanchot, and the notions of hospitality, justice, and responsibility of Jacques Derrida.

The work of literature or any work of art, if it achieves what art uniquely can achieve, calls out for a response that does justice to its uncharted ways of thinking and feeling, modes of knowledge, or emotional experience whose newness may be combined with a sense of rightness and truth. That response is deeply pleasurable (though what is depicted in the work might be painful) because it involves a momentary expansion of one’s being, a venture into places formerly blocked off, a sharpening of a dulled palate. And although it’s never possible to predict exactly what effect a work will have on a reader, or even to state afterwards what its effect has been, one thing is certain: we’re never exactly the same when we’ve been through the powerful transformations a great work of literature can perform. Literature is a social good not because it can be hijacked for this or that cause, but because it fosters an openness to otherness and to the future.

Image Credit: “Reading” by Jonathan Kim. CC BY NC 2.0 via Flickr.

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