To roll off of what I posted a couple of days ago, I wanted to discuss why I believe literature is not just important but also vital to our world. I taught eighth grade gifted language arts and literature for several years, and each year I would greet parents at Open House. I always enjoyed Open House because I enjoy performing, and talking in front of a crowd is like a performance. In addition to telling the parents about myself and my background (and always saying that I wrote romances that were not appropriate for eighth graders and that if anyone had a problem with that to please, please, please start a protest because I could use the publicity—never happened, but my students always offered to hold a book burning for me), I would give the parents my passionate and sincere beliefs about literature—all kinds of literature.
Technology progresses at a much faster rate than society. I love technology. I believe we can’t have enough engineers, physicists, and scientists in general in this world (My husband holds a PhD in robotics—yeah, I have a soft spot for the brainiacs). Robot Guy is an optimist; he believes technology can solve what ails the world. Unfortunately, technology moves too fast—too fast for the average person to assimilate it and understand it (by understand I mean use it with comfort—For example, we all drive cars now, but how many of us could actually put a car together? And you should read people’s reactions to automobiles when they first arrived. Hilarious. That and the use of electricity. The showy Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 helped usher in our dependence on electricity. Once people saw the spectacle, electricity became less frightening. Anyway…). So how does the average citizen become accustomed to new ideas and new advances?
Through Art. (Yes, with a capital A)
Art of all sorts exposes us and makes us comfortable with new ideas. We explore our fears through this safe venue and learn from it, so when reality confronts us, it isn’t as frightening. Ideas are often met with fear. Take robots for example. Stories and novels have explored all aspects of robotics in a way that a lay person can understand. From killer robots to helpful robots (Dr. Who to Isaac Asimov). My husband can tell you that there isn’t a robot that doesn’t have a huge red kill switch beside it (we’re not talking Roomba here), and the kill switch isn’t to kill the human operator. In any case, we’ve become so accustomed to the idea of robots that we hardly notice them in our lives. I don’t know about you, but Google’s self-driving car is something I want (although Robot Guy says there is still a long way to go. Robot vision is a particularly nasty problem.) And yes, I feel safer knowing a computer does most of the flying on an airplane.
But it isn’t just technological ideas that Art helps with. Cultural change happens through the examination of ideas in Art. Between Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gone with the Wind, The Invisible Man, To Kill A Mockingbird, and more recently The Help, we’ve seen racism through various lenses. Without realizing it, the ideas become a part of us and how we respond to those ideas shapes us (I don’t want to debate the validity of the arguments represented in such works—that would be a whole book by itself. What I’m saying is the ideas are there and we’re exposed to them, which affects us, however greatly or minutely). The rapid switch (rapid being relative to the time from when it actually came into our collective consciousness as opposed to the history of mankind) to the acceptance of same sex couples (which the majority of us now do) I believe was helped along by TV shows, books, and movies that featured LGBT characters. Once we saw they are simply like the rest of us, acceptance followed. (And if you’re not in this group and want to leave some sort of screed as a comment, just don’t. This is my page. Make your own page for your own screed.)
Whatever we read touches us, changes us, teaches us. We can agree with, disagree with, argue against, stand for, or dismiss those ideas, but in whatever way, those ideas have affected us. This is why books can be dangerous. This is why governments use propaganda. This is why dictators fear freethinking. This is why education is so important. This is why a great swath of people can be convinced to vote against their own self-interest. This is why debate is so important.
Right. I’ve gone on long enough. If you’re a former student, you’ve heard all this before.
P.S. I’ve focused mostly books, but I truly believe all forms of Art has this power. I just know books best.
Books I’m reading now:
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
A Feast for Crows by George RR Martin