One of the most universal human impulses can be summed up in the four words, “Tell me a story” – Leland Ryken (2000, Windows to the World)
As we have developed new technologies, we’ve used different forms- from fireside tales to films- to tell our stories. Yet, one form of storytelling deserves a central place in our lives: creative prose and verse.
A morning at the grocery store or a wait at the doctor’s office reveal the abundance of blue-lit screens projecting pixels at us. Recent digital innovations have changed the way we play, read, watch, work, and build relationships, to the point that one commentator has called this the “age of digital addiction” (“Digital Fatigue” Publisher’s Weekly, Oct. 2016). Digital media have crept into spaces once occupied by poetry, short stories, and novels; this digital media monster casts a growing shadow over literature and steals our time, including our students’ time in composition classrooms, where interest in reading is disappearing altogether (ibid). In short, the blue allure of the screen means that watching is eclipsing reading. Written literature needs defending, and one of the best places to begin is by remembering its value.
Literature is valuable because it can creatively explore and convey meaning while engaging the reader’s mind. This engagement is part of the writer-reader interaction: writers have something they wish to say to others, and readers want to interact with what writers share (Ryken, Windows).
At least two things unite us all and invite us to engage with one another: a longing for beauty and a broader understanding of the human experience. As the author C.S. Lewis recognized, “we want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as our own” (An Experiment in Criticism). Literature expands our understanding by introducing us to a variety of perspectives (i.e. “seeing with other eyes”). It is a window through which we can look at beauty and enjoy imaginative depictions of life. Most importantly, creative verse and prose require us to be active during the process, unlike the passive watching of digital media. While we read our mind works to generate the action and images contained in the author’s words. In this way, the best literature reaches the center of our being so that it sticks with us long after we put the book (or tablet) down.
Literature is also valuable because it can lead us to truth in creative ways. We arrive at knowledge of reality through our five senses and through rational reflection. This knowledge can be expressed in two types of language, which I will call literary and non-literary. To borrow a distinction from Leland Ryken, literary language loves the quality of an experience, and involves imaginative storytelling and concrete diction. Non-literary language focuses on the quantity of an experience by categorizing it in abstract terms. Such writing appeals to our intellect and tends to ignore the imagination and emotions. Both types of language are important, of course, but literary language helps us search for beauty, wrestle with questions of good and evil, and express love in ways well beyond the limits of non-literary language.
Ultimately, its potential for beauty, its imaginative depictions of experience, and its ability to express truth, show that creative literature deserves a special place in our lives and is worth defending in a visually-driven, digital age.