Value of Literature
We learn a lot of things at home, at school, from friends, and from listening to various people wiser and cleverer than ourselves. But many of the most valuable things we know come from the literature we have read. Just as stories help explain the world to us, they also connect us to other lives. If we read well, we find ourselves in a conversational relationship with the most creative minds of our own time and of the past. Time spent reading literature is always time well spent.
Understanding Ourselves Better Through Literature
Every work of literature, however humble, is at some level asking: “What’s it all about? Why are we here?” Philosophers, spiritual folks, and scientists answer those questions in their own ways. In literature it is imagination that grapples with those basic questions.
Literature can transport us to a greater awareness of who, what, and where we are. It helps us make sense of the infinitely perplexing situations in which we find ourselves as human beings. As an added bonus, literature does so in ways that please us and make us want to read more.
Literature Helps Us Handle Complexity
At its basic level, literature is a collection of unique combinations of 26 small back marks on a white surface – letters in other words, since the word literature means things made of letters. Those combinations are more magical than anything a conjurer can pull out of his top hat. Yet a better answer would be that literature is the human mind at the very height of its ability to express and interpret the world around us.
Literature, at its best, does not simplify, but it enlarges our minds and sensibilities to the point where we can better handle complexity – even if, as is often the case, we don’t entirely agree with what we are reading. Literature enriches our lives in ways nothing else quite can, and makes us more human – and the better we learn to read, the better it will do that.
Inexhaustible Nature of Literature
The great works of literature are inexhaustible – that is one of the things that makes them great. A great work of literature continues giving at whatever point in life you read it. And, re-reading is one of the greatest pleasures that literature offers us. However often you go back to literary works, they will always have something new to offer.
We live in a golden age when, thanks to modern translation services, not just “literature” but “world literature” is available to us to read. There is hugely more literature than any of us will read in a lifetime. At best we can put together an intelligent sample, and the most important decision to make is how to assemble our selection.
A Little History of Literature
John Sutherland is a British academic, newspaper columnist and author. Sutherland is an Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College London. He has taught students at every level and is the author or editor of more than 20 books.
Sutherland specialises in Victorian fiction, 20th century literature, and the history of publishing. Among his works of scholarship is the Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction (known in the US as Stanford Companion, 1989), a comprehensive encyclopedia of Victorian fiction. A second edition was published in 2009 with 900 biographical entries, synopses of over 600 novels, and extensive background material on publishers, reviewers and readers.
Books John Sutherland has written include:
- A Little History of Literature
- Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?: More Puzzles in Classic Fiction
- Curiosities of Literature: A Feast for Book Lovers
- How to Be Well Read: A Guide to 500 Great Novels and a Handful of Literary Curiositis
- How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide
- Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation
- Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives
- Love, Sex, Death & Words: Surprising Tales From a Year in Literature
- The Boy Who Loved Books: A Memoir
- The Literary Detective: 100 Puzzles in Classic Fiction (Oxford World’s Classics)