The Power of Literature
“Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”
Bookstores offer an almost unlimited selection of books filled with daily affirmations. The idea is to repeat the affirmations until you begin to believe them. Yet, when I read them, I feel like an imposter in my own skin. There’s something inherently false in telling myself things I’ll never believe.
When I read similar messages in literature, I get a completely different feeling. What is it about a good book or essay (however you personally define good) that strikes a chord with readers?
Literature encourages us to think, to go beyond the surface and question our assumptions. Take this example: “I am brave.” Okay, good for you. Now read this quote: “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”
Both sentences say essentially the same thing. Yet, the first is shallow. There is no recognition of adversity or possibility for growth. Louisa May Alcott authored the second line. Nestled within hope for the future is the recognition that there may be stormy seas ahead. Yet, they can be navigated if we’re prepared.
Literature encourages us to question the world we live in. If we read the differing perspectives of Derrida, Nietzsche, and Foucault we learn to read with an open mind. There is no need to agree with any of these thinkers: the simple process of questioning their writings teaches us a great deal about ourselves.
In carefully reading Sylvia Plath, Anäis Nin, or Somerset Maugham we have the opportunity to question our worldview, to understand the source of our assumptions. If we learn to enjoy the process, we’ll learn to discover our personal truths. We will learn that those truths constantly evolve as we continue to ask questions and grow.
Literature opens us to the good, the potential, and the extraordinary in every human. It opens us to the bad, the limitations, and the shortcomings in those same people. Literature gives us a venue within which we can study the complexities and paradoxes that are an integral part of being human. Through literature we learn to face and embrace these contradictions. A lifetime of affirmations will never be as satisfying as one quote from a thoughtful piece of literature.
A good book can act as a map to guide us through life’s important moments and choices. It encourages us to expand our boundaries and connect with our heart.
What are some of your favorite pieces of literature and what did you learn from them?