As winter slowly approaches it seems the right time to reflect on the role of literature in our lives. The Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded. The Frankfurter Buchmesse and the Antwerp Book Fair just closed their doors. Christmas is only a couple of weeks away, but already much visible in the shops. And few things are more popular as a Christmas gift than books. Books rarely get more attention in the media than during the final months of the year. However, books rarely get the attention they really deserve, and as we are reading less and less, we lose much more than just some stories and words trusted to paper.
The conclusion of pretty much all the relevant research that has been done over the past years is always the same: we are reading less. A survey of the UK’s Reading Agency showed that 36% of British adults don’t read for pleasure. A 2015 survey of Scholastic showed that the number of parents who regularly read to their children aged 5-11 dramatically decreased over the last decades: from 54% to just about 17%. One could wonder whether it is really worth to bother that our love for literature seems to have cooled down. But indifferently shrugging one’s shoulders about this is inappropriate, for literature is one of the best tools to develop certain capabilities that are essential to a good life.
Reading and literature are important for several reasons, and one could easily fill countless bookshelves with books about the importance of books. Reading books is both recreation and creation, as the writer invokes the imagination and concentration of the reader. The latter is a quality of which the significance cannot sufficiently be stressed. Reading is an exercise in concentration, and such an exercise is of great importance, for those who are better able to focus, are better equipped to make it in life. Concentration is a necessary precondition of creativity and creativity is in turn necessary to do things that really make a difference.
Times of Distraction
It might be true that developing our ability to concentrate is more important today than ever before. We live in a world in which it is tremendously difficult to focus and not be distracted. Noise is all around us, and most of us have a screen within reach, 24/7. Countless other screens are nearby; all whispering in our ears like little demons: look at me, check your mailbox, check the news, the weather forecast, check anything. If you want to see something funny, moving, exciting; it is often only a matter of a few swipes or pushing a few buttons. The permanent possibility and proximity of instant escapism are an enormous challenge to our ability to concentrate. Maybe people are not less capable of concentrating than they were decades ago, but it surely has become less evident to do so in these times of ubiquitous distraction.
Literature also influences the development of our interpersonal and social capabilities. Philosophers, writers and lovers of literature have known this for ages, and now there is also increasing scientific evidence to support it: books make us better. Reading well-written books with a certain socio-psychological depth improves our capacity to empathise with our fellow human beings. Literature improves our capability to understand and sympathise with the sorrows of others. Books increase our understanding of others, and also our understanding for others. Without empathy, a good life and a better world are hardly conceivable. Empathy is the quality that allows us to live our lives to the fullest: not next, and certainly not at the expense of, but with each other.
Another capability that one develops through reading and that significantly increases one’s chances for a good, meaningful life, is language. The extent to which one really masters a language improves one’s chances in life and one’s chances to be successful. Success can have many faces, but most of them seem to be linked intimately to our social and intellectual capabilities, and the more refined our linguistic knowledge is, the more refined those capabilities. Language, spoken and written, is possibly the most fundamental feature of our species. Language is the engine of our thought and the foundation of our consciousness.
If language is such an essential feature of our nature, one could wonder whether we become more human, more humane, the higher our language proficiency levels. Are we to a fuller extent who we are, the more eloquent we are? That is a conclusion one must not be too eager to draw. For there are too many people with a heart of gold and a rather limited vocabulary, and way too many eloquent bastards to dismiss such a conclusion.