Why do we read literature?

By Haebitchan Jung

It’s quite a question, so thoroughly explored, yet still mysterious and unanswered. One of my GSI asked in the beginning of my English class, why do we read literature: what is the point? Many responded differently, one claiming that literature allows the readers to tap into their inner emotions. The other said that literature is like an amber, a history frozen in time; as we read a classic novel, we can understand, even if a little, about let’s say, the social dynamic of its time. It’s a convergence of the present and past, and nothing is as magical and mysterious.

My favorite answer was this: “Because it is fun!” Reading literature, to this respondent, was enjoyable and the reason for being an English major. And this, we all fully understand.

But to eyes of the scientist, literature serves little function. He trivializes the significance of reading and writing. Literature looks back, but does not move forward. What has literature done compared to what products of science has accomplished? Medicine? Technology? Ease of life? No. Personal satisfaction means relatively little to the satisfaction of the public. Literature can therefore be selfish. We read only to sate our own curiosity. Literature is the cure for the ambitious mind. But it only stays in the mind. It loses its strength and possibilities out in the real world when compared to the practicalities of science.

I’m not a pessimist, because I believe the scientist is right. Literature fun, it’s emotional, it’s educational. But it’s for one’s one self-enlightenment. Yes it does theorize. Shows the problems, suggests its solutions. But science does the action. The doer against the thinker.

But this is not a polemic against literature. Besides, what do I know? I’m merely a fool and a pedant of learning at best. And yet, I seek the answer for my educational path, the raison d’être for my being an English major. When a scientist, or a sociologist, or a psychologist comes up to me and ask, “Why do you read literature?”, I want to give him a good answer. Better than, “Because it’s fun!” Better than the revealing of my selfishness. So until then, I wait and I read. I think about the ways in which I can topple the strong. Until literature can rule supreme.