I was listening to the New York Times Book Review podcast (one of the little ways I stay connected to the literary world) when I heard a debate about the value of literature. As is often the case with literary folk, the debaters were conflicted and ambiguous, pointing out the contradiction between arguing for literature’s inherent value, and the frequent argument that reading literature prepares one for the world.
I’ve never been particularly good at angst–one of the main reasons I always struggled to write literary fiction (and to get dates with my fellow writers at Stanford, most of whom seemed to prefer darker, more brooding suitors). To me, it’s actually fairly easy to come up with a taxonomy of why reading literature is valuable:
1) Entertainment. People pay money to be entertained; people find literature entertaining. Ergo, literature provides entertainment value. Beyond the simple power of page-turning, literature can also make you feel emotions that you wouldn’t normally encounter in your everyday life.
2) Cultural fluency. Reading the canon grants access to a broadly shared set of ideas and experiences. In other words, reading literature provides cultural fluency. Eric Cartman of South Park can say, “Captain Ahab has to get his whale,” and we understand why.
3) Reading ability. Literature tends to be a far denser read than, say, TechCrunch posts. It acts as a training program that enhances both your reading speed and your ability to glean meaning from text.
4) Ideas. Literature grants you access to other lives and minds. Not only does it expose you to new ideas, those ideas can serve as models for your own decision-making. I often use principles I learned from literature and history to make better decisions.
5) Authority. When you seek to persuade others, citing classical sources seems to have a far greater impact than, say, children’s cartoons. Rightly or wrongly, the judgment of history grants literature authority that you can leverage for your own purposes. (Though I’ll note that I’m always a sucker for any argument that is based on DuckTales)
6) Branding. Even today, reading literature is considered a key part of being learned. If you don’t know Shakespeare, Twain, and Austen, you won’t be taken seriously as an intellectual.
Of course, I would argue that entertainment is the fundamental value. If you don’t find literature entertaining, you’ll end up like the millions of American high school students who can’t remember much about The Great Gatsby…and were born too early to simply watch the Leonardo DiCaprio movie.