On The Importance Of Literature

On The Importance Of Literature

This is an essay I wrote for Plano Profile Magazine while an administrator for Plano Public Library back in 1985. I think this essay is still relevant today. I hope you think so as well.

The history of America, almost from its inception, can be characterized as one continuous love affair with technology. Currently, that affair is at a fever pitch of intensity. Unfortunately, as with any passion, other, perhaps more important aspects of life have been sacrificed. With the ascendance of technology, the humanities, especially literature, have been de-emphasized, regarded as expendable. Thus, micro computers proliferate in the schools even as reading scores plummet and the liberal arts degree becomes virtually an endangered species.

Yet technology and the humanities are not mutually exclusive poles of the orb of intellect. The two can and must co-exist. Let me state this as unambiguously as possible: first, there is nothing inherently wrong with technology, only with the attitude of devaluating non-technological knowledge. Second, literature is an absolute necessity. Why?

Literature allows us to transcend our own limited perspectives. When we experience other cultures through the work of such writers as V.S. Naipaul, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, or even Charles Dickens, we not only discover what was important to the people of those societies, we shed new light on what is important to ourselves. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn stated in his Nobel Prize lecture: “The sole substitute for an experience which we have not ourselves lived through is art and literature…literature transmits incontrovertible condensed experience…from generation to generation. In this way literature becomes the living memory of a nation.”

But literature is more than our collective memory, more than a means of attaining vicarious experience. It is perhaps our most powerful tool for engendering the habit of critical thinking. Literature requires us to investigate our deepest values and purposes. Without a secure grasp of these, no society can withstand the turmoil brought about by worldly change.

Technology has given us nuclear weapons. Only the capacity to reason clearly about our personal and societal values can improve the possibilities for peace. The scientific method provides us with the facts but literature helps us discern the possible directions in which those facts may lead us. Medical science can tell us if our hearts are physically healthy but it takes a Joseph Conrad to diagnose the disease that lies in The Heart of Darkness. And though technology may be used to create material wealth and power, such writers as Graham Green remind us from where The Power and the Glory truly derive.

We are all too frequently reminded that we are now in the post-industrial age of information, as epitomized by the computer. Let us remember also the caution expressed by T.S. Eliot in The Rock:  

                                                              Endless invention, endless experiment,

                                                             Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

                                                             Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

                                                             Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the word…

                                                            Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

                                                           Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

I believe the pendulum has already begun to swing back toward a better balance between technology and the humanities. Progressive companies are applying more humanistic principles of management. They are finding that people with liberal arts backgrounds have those skills of critical thought which are so highly important to success in the business world.

How can the resurgence of literature be incorporated into your life? Read works of serious literature on a regular basis. Discuss your reading with your friends instead of the usual tired topics. Give a talk to your civic group on an interesting book.

Your library can assist you in selecting works of literary merit on particular subjects or interests. Furthermore, if you would like to participate in a literature discussion group, contact the library. Emphasize quality in your reading; it’s an investment which will appreciate and pay dividends throughout your entire life.

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