“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” But you still ought to lead him to the water.

I remember the son of a friend of mine, who attended a very excellent private school from kindergarten through high school, where literature was taken seriously. His parents also took it seriously and read to him at home. As a high school student, this bright young man informed his parents that he didn’t care to read a book and couldn’t see why he couldn’t just watch a movie based on a book. Although he had been given all the advantages of early and constant exposure to great literature, he deemed it unimportant.

Is literature truly important, or is it just a refined nicety for people with spare time on their hands who want to “live off the grid?”

In Level 2 we have been practicing timed impromptu essays. One of the articles the students used in the assignment is a thoughtful piece by Dana Gioia, titled, “Why Literature Matters.” It is compelling and I heartily recommend reading it.

This idea of why it is important to spend time on great literature has been on my mind while reading the students’ essays. There actually are many reasons that literature is important. Gioia is concerned with societal implications of allowing digital media to push literature out of our lives, which is a legitimate concern. But there are other reasons for why we should read literature and to lead our children to literature.

C. S. Lewis, a great thinker and writer whose own novels have been classified as literature, gives his own explanation of why literature is important in the Epilogue of his extended essay, “An Experiment in Criticism,” actually so extended that it was published as a book. Here is his thesis:

The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being.

Why make time for literature? Hear C.S. Lewis’s compelling argument:

“What is the good of reading what anyone writes?” is very like the question “What is the good of listening to what anyone says?” Unless you contain in yourself sources that can supply all the information, entertainment, advice, rebuke and merriment you want, the answer is obvious.

. . . What then is the good of — what is even the defence for — occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person? Or of fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that can never exist — on Dante’s earthly paradise, Thetis rising from the sea to comfort Achilles, Chaucer’s or Spenser’s Lady Nature, or the Mariner’s skeleton ship?

. . .The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspec­tive and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology.

. . . We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. . .One of the things we feel after reading a great work is “I have got out.” Or from another point of view, “I have got in”; pierced the shell of some other monad and dis­covered what it is like inside.

. . . We therefore delight to enter into other men’s beliefs (those, say, of Lucretius or Lawrence) even though we think them untrue. And into their passions, though we think them depraved, like those, sometimes, of Marlowe or Carlyle. And also into their imaginations, though they lack all realism of content.

. . .Not only nor chiefly in order to see what they are like but in order to see what they see, to occupy, for a while, their seat in the great theatre, to use their spectacles and be made free of whatever in­sights, joys, terrors, wonders or merriment those spectacles reveal. Hence it is irrelevant whether the mood expressed in a poem was truly and historically the poet’s own or one that he also had imagined. . .

What matters is his power to make us live it. . .

. . . This, so far as I can see, is the specific value or good of literature…it admits us to experiences other than our own. They are not, any more than our personal experiences, all equally worth having. Some, as we say, ‘interest’ us more than others. The causes of this interest are naturally extremely various and differ from one man to another; it may be the typical (and we say ‘How true!’) or the abnormal (and we say ‘How strange!’); it may be the beautiful, the terrible, the awe ­inspiring, the exhilarating, the pathetic, the comic, or the merely piquant. Literature gives the entree to them all.

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous exten­sion of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated.

The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I per­ceive the olfactory world charged with all the infor­mation and emotion it carries for a dog.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality . . . in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

One thought on “C.S. Lewis on Why Literature Matters

Share a comment or a question!