Literature won't die out. In fact, it's indispensable.
Literature is a pretty tough sell in the modern age. After all, you can find narrative fiction in more mediums than ever before: television, film, comics, video games, radio, theater, and on and on. Comparatively, literature seems difficult, solitary, and unreasonably time-intensive.
No wonder, then, that some of the finest modern American novelists feel the need to publicly defend their craft. The most visible of these defenses is likely Jonathan Franzen’s 1996 Harper’s piece, but literary giants such as Don DeLillo and the late David Foster Wallace have also been vocal on the subject. In a recent interview with the Times, DeLillo said: “It is the form that allows a writer the greatest opportunity to explore human experience.” Wallace’s defense was a little more personal; in an interview with Salon, he called fiction “magical,” and said it made him “feel unalone.”
By now perhaps some of the book junkies in the audience are murmuring in agreement. Still, the intelligent non-bibliophile is going to demand more than that, as she should. If we are going to make claims about the value of books independent of our own personal preference—and, in doing so, both second DeLillo’s observation and expand on Wallace’s—then we need to articulate the mechanism through which literature works what Wallace rightfully called its magic.
The source of literature’s power is the same thing that makes it so difficult: abstraction. Something like film can be viewed passively because any images and sounds relevant to the narrative are represented to us in real time. Literature can’t do that. Instead it relies on a complex series of symbols with no intrinsic value for us; a child can recognize a face on the television immediately, but needs to be taught to read.
But this is more of a boon for literature, than a drawback; it means that the medium is not limited to conveying only that which can be expressed through sound and images. The only limitations on literature’s capacity for expression are the limitations of language and human imagination. This is why DeLillo is correct: because literature has the capacity to take us into experiences that defy sound and vision, most notably the invisible and infinitely complex workings of human consciousness.
This abstraction can also explain why literature makes Wallace—and many other bibliophiles, including myself—feel less alone. The thing to keep in mind here is that because literature relies on conveying meaning through a seemingly meaningless series of symbols, the reader needs to actively translate those symbols into recognizable concepts. To put it another way: if you want to represent the concept “giraffe” to your friend, you can show her either a written description of a giraffe or a photograph. Assuming the description is well written and clear enough to lead her to roughly the same mental image as the photograph, it still requires additional work on her part. She needs to compare the word “tall” as written on the piece of paper to the concept represented by “tall” as it exists in her own head; and along with that concept, especially in its relation to the word itself, comes a plethora of hidden associations and connotations, nuances of meaning, and recollections that exist only within your friend’s mind. The act of connecting these things to the word as written is, in effect, a form of translation.
Translation is always messy and complicated, but never more so than when it comes to the work of translating mere words into ideas. Any form of translation requires accounting for context, conventions and subtleties that might not be perfectly transposed from one form of expression to another. Even reading the simplest text requires resizing and refitting the concepts as expressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) by the author to conform to your own understanding and the architecture of your mind.
Sometimes this process of resizing and refitting is easier than others. And sometimes, the prolific (or just incredibly fortunate) reader will stumble upon a sublime moment in a particular text in which the need for translation seems to disappear altogether. At these points, the reader suddenly feels that he knows exactly what the author is trying to articulate; and the amazing part is that he knows these things because he has experienced them himself without ever putting a name to them. For a chapter, a page, a paragraph, or even just a sentence fragment, it is as if the writer and the reader share one pair of eyes, one mind.
I call this deep reading, and to me it is the heart and soul of literature. It is that sublime moment in which a dark, hidden portion of your own mind is brought into the light to observe. It is when you get to confront, observe, and learn about your own consciousness. And, perhaps most importantly, it is the moment in which you discover that these things you thought were your burdens and blessings, and yours alone, belong to others as well. It makes you feel a strange sort of intimacy and kinship with the writer who has found these things within himself and put them on display.
Indeed, if the author is doing his work well, it can make us feel this same kinship towards fictional characters with radically different backgrounds and outlooks from our own. Literature not only can make us feel less alone, but also give us a deep feeling of empathy for people who, if we encountered them on the street, we would think we had nothing in common with.
This is literature’s gift to the world, and why it is as indispensable as ever.