Literature is vastly underappreciated in our day. This doesn’t mean people have forsaken reading—a mere look at the number of stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders shows that people must be reading something.
Sadly, much of the reading that passes across our eyes doesn’t fall into the category of literature. Books like Tom Clancy’s The Teeth of the Tiger need not apply. There is nothing wrong with a book like this—I myself read Clancy and a few others on occasion. They’re good for entertainment value and stimulate one’s mind much more than watching a movie like Twister, which I affectionately rank as one of the worst movies of all time.
After all is said and done, however, one is not challenged intellectually or even emotionally by “entertainment-style” books. I define a work of literature as one which invites the reader into another mind, world, or situation which causes the reader to extend his or her imagination to come to terms with what is being discussed in the literature. Literature makes us leap out with our imaginations and often teaches us.
Myron Magnet writes in this excellent article about the value that literature has for our culture [link found via aldaily.com]:
Literature is a conversation across the ages about our experience and our nature, a conversation in which, while there isn’t unanimity, there is a surprising breadth of agreement. Literature amounts, in these matters, to the accumulated wisdom of the race, the sum of our reflections on our own existence. It begins with observation, with reporting, rendering the facts of our inner and outer reality with acuity sharpened by imagination. At its greatest, it goes on to show how these facts have coherence and, finally, meaning. As it dramatizes what actually happens to concrete individuals trying to shape their lives at the confluence of so many imperatives, it presents us with concrete and particular manifestations of universal truths. For as the greatest authors know, the universal has to be embodied in the particular—where, as it is enmeshed in the complexity and contradictoriness of real experience, it loses the clarity and lucidity that only abstractions can possess.
One of the examples Magnet mentions briefly is Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. This novel is #2 on my all time favorite list (perhaps I’ll give my #1 later). Though it is an engaging and even entertaining work of fiction, I would easily rank it more valuable than any non-fiction self-help book on relationships. Anna Karenina explores nearly every type of relationship known to mankind. What makes a novel like Anna Karenina great is that it not only explores these relationships, it gives a scenario for them being lived out.