A Summer’s Worth of Literature: First, What is Literature?

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“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” – Robin Williams, Dead Poet Society

Literature, put simply, is the art of words. Be it written, sung, or spoken, literature, like all other art forms, is an expression of the human’s inherent tendency to create, discover and immerse itself in beautiful things.

Humans of all cultures share this tendency, and with it they share the same appreciation for poetry and prose and spoken literature, though they may have different modes and means of expressing such appreciation. Literature is found in these different cultures in the diverse practices of their respective societies: religious texts, songs of harvest and historical epics are only some of the many examples. This being said, it can be said that literature functions as a documentation of human heritage and history.

Works of literature are not only seen as documents, though. The art of words is also used throughout the course of history as vessels for education or the fostering of values from older minds to younger ones. History’s most influential teachers use stories to expose metaphysical, philosophical and spiritual truths. Jesus, Buddha, Confucius and Plato: what they have in common is not only their consciousness of an objective code of goodness, but also their utilization of allegory and metaphors and parables to elicit emotions in correspondence to such truths.

Literature has also aided in critiquing society and in changing it. Songs of revolution, of war and writings concerning the plight of Man are also prominent in the passage of time. Reflections on the past, thoughts on present matters and hopes and fears regarding the future are common themes in literature. Ideas expressed in works of art, especially literature, has not only been shaped by the course of history, history in return has also been greatly influenced by the ideas expressed in literature.

Ultimately, beyond its contributions to the historical development of culture, philosophy and society in general, literature is and has been treasured as it serves as a means of communicating the intensity and depth of emotions, truth and desires derived from our humanity. The best works of literature are glorious products of the marriage between human experience and imaginative employment of language. Unlike other animals, we do not merely feel pain, we lament it; we do not only experience happiness, we enjoy it. These expressions of consciousness – joy, lament, grief – are best captured, perhaps may only be captured, by words alone. And through literature, people not only incarnate such feelings, they are able to communicate and understand the hearts behind them.

It is by this notion that I believe literature to be one of Man’s greatest contributions to the world. Borne out of the meeting of the internal mechanisms of his soul – reason, feeling, and desire – and the external world in which it moves, literature is what happens when Nature meets wonder.

Literature, in the final calculation, is Man’s glorious scream, or sigh, or laugh in his terrifying encounter with the beauty which surrounds and overwhelms him.

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