The Value of Great Literature

TheScarletLetterSome assume that great literature is valuable because it teaches moral lessons. But to judge literature strictly by the lessons it teaches robs it of its true value and power.

Very few great works end with a moral, and for good reason. Morality tales are often preachy and boring. After all, if the sole purpose of writing were to teach true statements like “one ought always to obey one’s parents”, it would be much easier to write persuasive essays and avoid fiction or poetry all together.

Read a few pages of any great novel and you will quickly realize that very few of them can be reduced to a simple imperative statement or two. The Scarlet Letter, for instance, is certainly not an elaborately embellished restatement of the 6th1 commandment “Thou shall not commit adultery”. No, The Scarlet Letter is doing something much grander and less quantifiable.

The real value of great literature is not to be found in learning nicely packaged lessons, but in engaging with human experience in such a way that its complexities, problems, beauties and paradoxes become known. I do not mean that we simply know about human experience. No, through great literature we come to know human experience in–dare I say it– “the biblical sense.”

Great literature brings into our awareness the fundamental complexities of life in such a way that we gain intimacy with them. It attaches meaning to the common experiences and gives them heft and shape. Great literature does not teach us about life, it teaches us life. Its greatest value is not that it teaches us how to live, though it does do that, rather its greatest value is that it teaches us to actually live.

Perhaps we should make it a maxim: “Those who read well, live well.” We spend much of our lives diverting our attention from the stresses and complexities of experience that daily bombard us. Literature isolates and magnifies things that we are often too busy or too scared to notice while in the midst of them. It gives context and structure to these experiences and allows us to examine and cope with them in a way we may not be able to do on our own.

1 Or 7th depending on how you count them.