Literature is part of our cultural heritage which is freely available to everyone, and which can enrich our lives in all kinds of ways. Once we have broken the barriers that make studying literature seem daunting, we find that literary works can be entertaining, beautiful, funny, or tragic. They can convey profundity of thought, richness of emotion, and insight into character. They take us beyond our limited experience of life to show us the lives of other people at other times. They stir us intellectually and emotionally, and deepen our understanding of our history, our society, and our own individual lives. In great writing from the past we find the England of our ancestors, and we not only see the country and the people as they were, but we also soak up the climate of the times through the language itself, its vocabulary, grammar, and tone. We would only have to consider the writing of, Boswell, and
side by side to see how the way writers use language embodies the cultural atmosphere of their time. Literature can also give us glimpses of much earlier ages. Glimpses of Celtic Ireland in the poetry of, or of the Romans in Shakespeares plays, for example, can take us in our imaginations back to the roots of our culture, and the sense of continuity and change we get from surveying our history enhances our understanding of our modern world.
Literature can enrich our experience in other ways too. London, for example, is all the more interesting a city when behind what we see today we see the London known to Dickens, Boswell and Johnson, or Shakespeare. And our feeling for nature can be deepened when a landscape calls to mind images from, say, Wordsworth, or Ted Hughes. The world of English literature consists, apart from anything else, of an astonishing array of characters, from the noble to the despicable – representations of people from all walks of life engaged in all kinds of activities. Through their characters great authors convey their insights into human nature, and we might find that we can better understand people we know if we recognise in them characteristics we have encountered in literature. Perhaps we see that a certain man\’s behaviour resembles that of in Antony and Cleopatra, or a certain woman is rather like The Wife of Bath in \’s Canterbury Tales.
Seeing such similarities can help us to understand and accept other people. Good works of literature are not museum pieces, preserved and studied only for historical interest. They last because they remain fresh, transcending as well as embodying the era in which they were written. Each reader reading each work is a new and unique event and the works speak to us now, telling us truths about human life which are relevant to all times. Whether we choose to study it or read it for pleasure, when we look back over our literature we are looking back over incredible richness. Not just museum pieces, but living works which we can buy in bookshops, borrow from the library, or download from the internet and read today, right now. The study of literature has a civilizing effect on people. There is an extreme danger of education being used primarily to turn out engineers, lawyers, doctors, accountants, business men and business women and other professionals who are lacking in human feelings and who have been described as educated barbarians.
The great Leo Tolstoy wrote a sadly neglected book titled What is Art in which he explained, among other things, the importance of all art to human society. Here is a critical excerpt which might induce some readers to look for the book itself. P (See reference link below. ) As, thanks to man\’s capacity to express thoughts by words, every man may know all that has been done for him in the realms of thought by all humanity before his day, and can in the present, thanks to this capacity to understand the thoughts of others, become a sharer in their activity and can himself hand on to his contemporaries and descendants the thoughts he has assimilated from others, as well as those which have arisen within himself; so, thanks to man\’s capacity to be infected with the feelings of others by means of art, all that is being lived through by his contemporaries is accessible to him, as well as the feelings experienced by men thousands of years ago, and he has also the possibility of transmitting his own feelings to others. If people lacked this capacity to receive the thoughts conceived by the men who preceded them and to pass on to others their own thoughts, men would be like wild beasts, or like Kaspar Hauser.
And if men lacked this other capacity of being infected by art, people might be almost more savage still, and, above all, more separated from, and more hostile to, one another. And therefore the activity of art is a most important one, as important as the activity of speech itself and as generally diffused. PP A lot of what is offered as art in our modern world is what Tolstoy called \”counterfeit art. \” It is totally insincere and produced mainly for money. Some of the characteristics of counterfeit art are imitation, and striking and unusual effects. In popular music it can be seen that amplified noise and screaming are substitutes for genuine feeling. Much modern painting looks like nothing more than blatant hoaxes. Exposure to genuine art in school could conceivably help students to discriminate between real and counterfeit art, includinig real and counterfeit creative literature. If young people do not get such exposure in school–where are they going to get it when they leave school?