Who Needs Literature?

“I don’t read,” the statement by itself might not have been so bad had he not been thrusting his chest out and saying it so proudly. Sadly, I was not shocked by this… I had heard it before. So what do we need literature for? For the couch potatoes, we have all forms of passive entertainment: television and movies. For those more active – or at least wanting the appearance thereof – we have football and NASCAR. Very easy, no real thinking required.

Of course our working lives have become very focused too. At one time, most people served a variety of functions in their jobs. Farmers had to be carpenters, mechanics and veterinarians along with their knowledge of soil, seeds and cultivation. Store keepers dealt with far more than stocking shelves and taking inventory. They were mathematicians, marketers and cornerstones of the community. These people were among the ranks of something known as “Renaissance Men.” My apologies to the politically correct amongst us for the seemingly gender specific language, but when I use the expression “man” I mean it in the traditional etymology of the word as shorthand for “mankind” or “humanity” which in itself is gender neutral.  Nonetheless some are offended by the presence of the word “man” embedded in any word.

What of the “renaissance man?” That person seems to no longer be valued in today’s society. Modern careers and workplaces place little value on people with broad knowledge and skill sets. Quite the contrary, in fact a premium is placed on one who has thorough knowledge of two or three things and can perform them with robotic precision. So who needs literature to entertain and enlighten? After a day of turning the same bolt, balancing the same spreadsheet or writing the same line of programming code, we may retreat to our living rooms to have our electronic baby sitters walk us through an evening of thoughtless guided fun. No thinking required.

So who really needs literature? As a society, we are probably more literate in the technical sense than we have been at any other time in our history, yet we read far less than our forbears. They read for knowledge and for fun. They knew the classics and about ancient history. Poetry was published in the daily newspapers on a regular basis. The letters written by common soldiers in the wars of the 1700s and 1800s frequently contained some attempt at poetry. Even those who couldn’t read themselves often listened while others read to them then discussed the passages.

That was a different time, I suppose, when entertainment options were limited. No electricity, no television, no computers or video games. Many people lived in remote areas that required more self reliance. Now many of us live in larger population centers. We now isolate our tasks and compartmentalize our minds to sharply focused assignments which we learn so well we can perform them in our sleep. We come home and vegetate before the TV. No thinking required, so who needs thought. It is highly overrated and often leads to individualism… nothing but trouble associated with that.

I guess an important question is: do we really want to become a species of robots? So who needs literature? Well… we all do. Mark Twain once said that The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them. Literature makes you think, it leads you to places within yourself you’ve never been, it makes you consider what life is like for others, it teaches you things and it can take you on a vacation without ever leaving your home. Literature can show you places you might otherwise never see and forces you to dwell on questions that can change your whole life.

If you’ve ever caught yourself puffing out your chest and proclaiming, “I don’t read,” consider this: what’s the point of being able to read if you refuse to? So who needs literature?  Well… I do!

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