The Vital Need for Literature Today

So what is it we teach when we teach literature? What is it that we convey when we engage in discussions about books or encourage our students to write their own stories and poems? What do we allow them to explore when we teach Memoir? I’ll call all of these activities by the same term, the Study of Literature, since they are all linked. All literature is predicated on one thing – that the characters or narrators in the stories encounter struggles and then have to choose whether or not to face them. It would be fair to say that literature is therefore implicitly concerned with the virtue of courage – that virtue without which no others can exist. Whether it’s Emily Dickinson asking us to take the step of sharing her unusual view of the world, and risk the puzzled looks of our neighbors, or if it’s Odysseus refusing to give up in his quest to get home, courage is at the core of literature. Reading about it, talking about it, we grow our own courage. In the outside world we don’t have too much opportunity to examine courage, and see whether or not we’ll actually live up to those standards. And increasingly most of us don’t. We act out of self-interest and expediency. We do tend to play safe – with the exception of the bungee-jumping thrill junkies who think that extreme sports are the same thing as moral courage, as “doing the right thing”. They are not the same thing. Courage - thoughtful, considered, unselfish actions that are about choosing the humane path – is in short supply in our modern world. Literature can help us grow this virtue. And that is just one reason to consider literature as a vital area of study for all people, everywhere.