Published 31 May 2017
In Mario Vargas Llosa’s essay, “Why Literature?”, he argues for the importance of literature in human life amidst popular opinion that it has become irrelevant and even on the brink of extinction. He feels the need to defend literature against these existing and almost widely-accepted views in light of everyday instances that seem to support them. Llosa points out to the most obvious evidence of how the habit of reading has become lost among people. He adds the fact that reading has “become more and more a female activity (Llosa)” and actual conducted surveys prove this.
The implication of this is that women have more leisure time to spare and more prone to engage in fantasy and illusion than men. For this point, one simply needs to visit the nearest library and find out the same truth for one’s self. Even in university libraries and bookstores, women outnumber the men. This could also be the same explanation behind the higher sales of romance novels over other works of fiction, specifically those tackling what are traditionally of interest to men like sports. The only male-directed reading materials that sell well are car and adult magazines. The author does not dwell too much on the gender aspect of the issue, however, because of the possible bias of the argument.
He correlates today’s generation of non-readers with the trend of specialization of knowledge. Literature has become unpopular because people have become concerned only with their respective lines of work and expertise. The era of specialization requires the individual to be knowledgeable of the industry jargon, latest theories and techniques, and read technical literature so much so that one could not understand or find the time to read about something else. In consequence, the average human being has forgotten how to be well-rounded. Llosa thinks that as more and more people decide to stop reading literature beyond their high school English class, society itself would lose “not only because they (non-readers) are unaware of the pleasure they are missing, but also because…a society without literature…is a society condemned to become spiritually barbaric, and even to jeopardize its freedom (Llosa).” Literature, along with other creative fields in the arts and humanities, has always been connected with raising the quality of the culture and humanity of men, and in turn, society. The article points to literature as the “common denominator of human experience (Llosa)”.
People may have varied skills and belong to differentiated professions, but literature makes us go beyond these differences and look, as in a mirror, those that make us similar to each other like feeling the same emotions, committing the same sins, and going through universal experiences like hoping and dreaming. Actually, it is this insistence of not looking at the singular humanness in people that promotes further inequalities and conflicts among peoples. Narrow-mindedness is the effect of the inability to empathize with others which, in turn, is brought about by a low level of understanding with others who because they seem to look and think differently.
Another argument that the writer ascribes to literature is how it not only connects the existing universalities of human beings everywhere but even with the past. Literature is not only a source for history lessons, it also connect the present to the “collective human experience across time and space (Llosa).” This is an extension to the preceding point on literature’s ability to make us understand life as a shared experience with others regardless of cultural or ethnic background. History is a collection of stories of the past. Literature is a repository of human emotions, dreams and aspirations of humanity since humankind learned to reinterpret them through the various literary forms. Literature reminds us that we have been pursuing a goal as humans—a heightened sense of humanity which would allow us to co-exists simply as humans.
In the next part of the article, the author disparages those who believe that the day will come when books would become obsolete. He picks on Bill Gates whose lifelong dream is to live to see the time when societies would have no need for paper. The irony of this fact is that, this could happen. Many people now read electronic books or e-books. Those who continue to pine for books and do not believe of its impending doom are usually those who, like the author, have grown up reading traditional books. Today’s children are even introduced to e-books early in life. Nevertheless, a consolation with this scenario is that, even if paper becomes obsolete, for certain, literature would remain. Even if for nothing more profound, the need to escape to fantastic worlds through reading is a natural need by people burdened with the rigors and monotony of everyday life.
More than that, however, literature remains relevant because, as history has shown, it is a catalyst for change. Literary works have had a role in several revolutions that changed the way governments run and people think and lead their lives. Good writers think outside the box, therefore, good stories make readers think beyond what they have been used to. Without literature, we would have nothing by which to reflect upon and nothing to make us realize of the unknown aspects of the human condition, both the sublime and—more importantly—the monstrous. Without literature we would be partly blind because nothing would allow us to discover the most hidden of human realities. Llosa paints a future scenario of a world without literature and imagines it to be overdeveloped and with super advanced technology but this “cybernetic world, in spite of its prosperity and power, its high standard of living and its scientific achievement would be profoundly uncivilized and utterly soulless (Llosa).” Futuristic movies about planet Earth usually depict a place where machines control not only daily activities, but humans as well. Maybe they are more accurate than we think judging from the current habits of humans, specifically their inability to appreciate reading literature.
- Llosa, Mario Vargas. Why Literature?