As Leland Ryken says, “one of the most universal human impulses can be summed up in the four words, ‘Tell me a story'” (Windows to the World). As time has passed and technology progressed, we have told our stories in different ways, but what unites novels, plays, radio tales, and movies is the storytelling act. While no one mode of expression seems necessary for our storytelling, there is one form that we should never let disappear: literature.
Literature is old, but it is not always loved. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato was not an fan of literature. Plato preferred philosophy and wanted “to replace poetry [literature] with philosophy as the central educational discourse in Athenian society” (Dorsch & Murray, Classical Literary Criticism). He felt this way because he thought literature distracted us- and so society- from achieving certain good ends. Thus, in wanting to outline the best society possible, Plato concluded in his Republic that only a storyteller who would depict the dictates of philosophy and would tell stories that adhere to Plato’s prescribed patterns, should be admitted (ibid). Just as a defense of literature was needed in Plato’s day, it can be shown that a defense of literature is needed in our day.
One reason we need a special defense of literature is the rise of digital media. Some commentators have called this the “age of digital addiction” (Weinstein, “Digital Fatigue” Publisher’s Weekly, Oct. 17th 2016,). The pervasiveness of digital media (a trip to the store or a wait at the doctor’s office tells us so) means that reading stories is being overshadowed. Youtube, Netflix, and Facebook have captured our interest and our money; they vie for our attention in literature classrooms, at work, and at home. They have led to a measurable decline in reading in general (ibid). Simply put, literature is disappearing in our digital age, and we should defend it by reminding ourselves of its inherent value.
The Value of Literature
Literature is valuable because it can express meaning between people in ways few other mediums can match. Authors “have something they wish to say to others…they hope to have readers, and the more the better,” and so, all our literary experiences “involve an interaction between writer and audience” (Ryken, p. 85). Author and audience meet in a literary work, and each time an author writes and a reader reads, the process repeats itself. But, what exactly is it that we seek in this interaction?
At least two things unite us: a longing for beauty and for better understanding the human experience. C.S. Lewis summed it up best: “[We read because] we want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as our own” (2012, An Experiment in Criticism). Literature is a passageway allowing us to do this, and our enjoyment of beauty and different depictions of human experience has led us back to our favorite stories time and again. We may not always be able to explain why we love our stories, but we walk away from literature as changed people.
In addition to satisfying our longing for beauty and understanding human experience, there is value in literature because of its ability to lead us to truth. We can arrive at knowledge about our world in two ways: concretely through the senses, and through abstract, rational thought. Further, there are two types of language we can use to express our knowledge: literary and non-literary.
Literary language loves the quality of our experience and tries to capture it with vivid, memorable language- the kind used in our best stories. Non-literary language tends to focus on its quantity and outlines it abstractly- it is the language of textbooks (Ryken). The way the language of our stories expresses beauty and depicts human experience means that literature drives truths home to us in ways we will remember when we are old and grey. All of this shows that it deserves a place in our lives. We should defend it for ourselves and all those born underneath the shadow of a television screen or in front of a smart phone.
But in the end, the best defense of literature is literature itself. The next time you’re in the mood for a story, put a literary classic to the test.