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Why Literature?

The premature obituary of the book


It has often happened to me, at book fairs or in bookstores, that a gentleman approaches me and asks me for a signature. “It is for my wife, my young daughter, or my mother,” he explains. “She is a great reader and loves literature.” Immediately I ask: “And what about you? Don’t you like to read?” The answer is almost always the same: “Of course I like to read, but I am a very busy person.” I have heard this explanation dozens of times: this man and many thousands of men like him have so many important things to do, so many obligations, so many responsibilities in life, that they cannot waste their precious time buried in a novel, a book of poetry, or a literary essay for hours and hours. According to this widespread conception, literature is a dispensable activity, no doubt lofty and useful for cultivating sensitivity and good manners, but essentially an entertainment, an adornment that only people with time for recreation can afford. It is something to fit in between sports, the movies, a game of bridge or chess; and it can be sacrificed without scruple when one “prioritizes” the tasks and the duties that are indispensable in the struggle of life.

It seems clear that literature has become more and more a female activity. In bookstores, at conferences or public readings by writers, and even in university departments dedicated to the humanities, the women clearly outnumber the men. The explanation traditionally given is that middle-class women read more because they work fewer hours than men, and so many of them feel that they can justify more easily than men the time that they devote to fantasy and illusion. I am somewhat allergic to explanations that divide men and women into frozen categories and attribute to each sex its characteristic virtues and shortcomings; but there is no doubt that there are fewer and fewer readers of literature, and that among the saving remnant of readers women predominate.

This is the case almost everywhere. In Spain, for example, a recent survey organized by the General Society of Spanish Writers revealed that half of that country’s population has never read a book. The survey also revealed that in the minority that does read, the number of women who admitted to reading surpasses the number of men by 6.2 percent, a difference that appears to be increasing. I am happy for these women, but I feel sorry for these men, and for the millions of human beings who could read but have decided not to read.

They earn my pity not only because they are unaware of the pleasure that they are missing, but also because I am convinced that a society without literature, or a society in which literature has been relegated—like some hidden vice—to the margins of social and personal life, and transformed into something like a sectarian cult, is a society condemned to become spiritually barbaric, and even to jeopardize its freedom. I wish to offer a few arguments against the idea of literature as a luxury pastime, and in favor of viewing it as one of the most primary and necessary undertakings of the mind, an irreplaceable activity for the formation of citizens in a modern and democratic society, a society of free individuals.

We live in the era of the specialization of knowledge, thanks to the prodigious development of science and technology and to the consequent fragmentation of knowledge into innumerable parcels and compartments. This cultural trend is, if anything, likely to be accentuated in years to come. To be sure, specialization brings many benefits. It allows for deeper exploration and greater experimentation; it is the very engine of progress. Yet it also has negative consequences, for it eliminates those common intellectual and cultural traits that permit men and women to co-exist, to communicate, to feel a sense of solidarity. Specialization leads to a lack of social understanding, to the division of human beings into ghettos of technicians and specialists. The specialization of knowledge requires specialized languages and increasingly arcane codes, as information becomes more and more specific and compartmentalized. This is the particularism and the division against which an old proverb warned us: do not focus too much on the branch or the leaf, lest you forget that they are part of a tree, or too much on the tree, lest you forget that it is part of a forest. Awareness of the existence of the forest creates the feeling of generality, the feeling of belonging, that binds society together and prevents it from disintegrating into a myriad of solipsistic particularities. The solipsism of nations and individuals produces paranoia and delirium, distortions of reality that generate hatred, wars, and even genocide.

In our time, science and technology cannot play an integrating role, precisely because of the infinite richness of knowledge and the speed of its evolution, which have led to specialization and its obscurities. But literature has been, and will continue to be, as long as it exists, one of the common denominators of human experience through which human beings may recognize themselves and converse with each other, no matter how different their professions, their life plans, their geographical and cultural locations, their personal circumstances. It has enabled individuals, in all the particularities of their lives, to transcend history: as readers of Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dante, and Tolstoy, we understand each other across space and time, and we feel ourselves to be members of the same species because, in the works that these writers created, we learn what we share as human beings, what remains common in all of us under the broad range of differences that separate us. Nothing better protects a human being against the stupidity of prejudice, racism, religious or political sectarianism, and exclusivist nationalism than this truth that invariably appears in great literature: that men and women of all nations and places are essentially equal, and that only injustice sows among them discrimination, fear, and exploitation.

Nothing teaches us better than literature to see, in ethnic and cultural differences, the richness of the human patrimony, and to prize those differences as a manifestation of humanity’s multi-faceted creativity. Reading good literature is an experience of pleasure, of course; but it is also an experience of learning what and how we are, in our human integrity and our human imperfection, with our actions, our dreams, and our ghosts, alone and in relationships that link us to others, in our public image and in the secret recesses of our consciousness.

This complex sum of contradictory truths—as Isaiah Berlin called them—constitutes the very substance of the human condition. In today’s world, this totalizing and living knowledge of a human being may be found only in literature. Not even the other branches of the humanities—not philosophy, history, or the arts, and certainly not the social sciences—have been able to preserve this integrating vision, this universalizing discourse. The humanities, too, have succumbed to the cancerous division and subdivision of knowledge, isolating themselves in increasingly segmented and technical sectors whose ideas and vocabularies lie beyond the reach of the common woman and man. Some critics and theofists would even like to change literature into a science. But this will never happen, because fiction does not exist to investigate only a single ‘precinct of experience. It exists to enrich through the imagination the entirety of human life, which cannot be dismembered, disarticulated, or reduced to a series of schemas or formulas without disappearing. This is the meaning of Proust’s observation that “real life, at last enlightened and revealed, the only life fully lived, is literature.” He was not exaggerating, nor was he expressing only his love for his own vocation. He was advancing the particular proposition that as a result of literature life is better understood and better lived; and that living life more fully necessitates living it and sharing it with others.

The brotherly link that literature establishes among human beings, compelling them to enter into dialogue and making them conscious of a common origin and a Common goal, transcends all temporal barriers. Literature transports us into the past and links us to those who in bygone eras plotted, enjoyed, and dreamed through those texts that have come down to Us, texts that now allow us also to enjoy and to dream. This feeling of membership in the collective human experience across time and space is the highest achievement of culture, and nothing contributes more to its renewal in every generation than literature.

It always irritated Borges when he was asked, “What is the use of literature?” It seemed to him a stupid question, to which he would reply: “No one would ask what is the use of a canary’s song or a beautiful sunset.” If such beautiful things exist, and if, thanks to them, life is even for an instant less ugly and less sad, is it not petty to seek practical justifications? But the question is a good one. For novels and poems are not like the sound of birdsong or the spectacle of the sun sinking into the horizon, because they were not created by chance or by nature. They are human creations, and it is therefore legitimate to ask how and why they came into the world, and what is their purpose, and why they have lasted so long.

Literary works are born, as shapeless ghosts, in the intimacy of a writer’s consciousness, projected into it by the combined strength of the unconscious, and the writer’s sensitivity to the world around him, and the writer’s emotions; and it is these things to which the poet or the narrator, in a struggle with words, gradually gives form, body, movement, rhythm, harmony, and life. An artificial life, to be sure, a life imagined, a life made of language-yet men and women seek out this artificial life, some frequently, others sporadically, because real life falls short for them, and is incapable of offering them what they want. Literature does not begin to exist through the work of a single individual. It exists only when it is adopted by others and becomes a part of social life—when it becomes, thanks to reading, a shared experience.

One of its first beneficial effects takes place at the level of language. A community without a written literature expresses itself with less precision, with less richness of nuance, and with less clarity than a community whose principal instrument of communication, the word, has been cultivated and perfected by means of literary texts. A humanity without reading. untouched by literature, would resemble a community of deaf-mutes and aphasics, afflicted by tremendous problems of communication due to its crude and rudimentary language. This is true for individuals, too. A person who does not read, or reads little, or reads only trash, is a person with an impediment: he can speak much but he will say little, because his vocabulary is deficient in the means for self-expression.

This is not only a verbal limitation. It represents also a limitation in intellect and in imagination. It is a poverty of thought, for the simple reason that ideas, the concepts through which we grasp the secrets of our condition, do not exist apart from words. We learn how to speak correctly—and deeply, rigorously, and subtly—from good literature, and only from good literature. No other discipline or branch of the arts can substitute for literature in crafting the language that people need to communicate. To speak well, to have at one’s disposal a rich and diverse language, to be able to find the appropriate expression for every idea and every emotion that we want to communicate, is to be better prepared to think, to teach, to learn, to converse, and also to fantasize, to dream, to feel. In a surreptitious way, words reverberate in all our actions, even in those actions that seem far removed from language. And as language evolved, thanks to literature, and reached high levels of refinement and manners, it increased the possibility of human enjoyment.

Literature has even served to confer upon love and desire and the sexual act itself the status of artistic creation. Without literature, eroticism would not exist. Love and pleasure would be poorer, they would lack delicacy and exquisiteness, they would fail to attain to the intensity that literary fantasy offers. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that a couple who have read Garcilaso, Petrarch, Gongora, or Baudelaire value pleasure and experience pleasure more than illiterate people who have been made into idiots by television’s soap operas. In an illiterate world, love and desire would be no different from what satisfies animals, nor would they transcend the crude fulfillment of elementary instincts.

Nor are the audiovisual media equipped to replace literature in this task of teaching human beings to use with assurance and with skill the extraordinarily rich possibilities that language encompasses. On the contrary, the audiovisual media tend to relegate words to a secondary level with respect to images, which are the primordial language of these media, and to constrain language to its oral expression, to its indispensable minimum, far from its written dimension. To define a film or a television program as “literary” is an elegant way of saying that it is boring. For this reason, literary programs on the radio or on television rarely capture the public. So far as I know, the only exception to this rule was Bernard Pivot’s program, Apostrophes, in France. And this leads me to think that not only is literature indispensable for a full knowledge and a full mastery of language, but its fate is linked also and indissolubly with the fate of the book, that industrial product that many are now declaring obsolete.

This brings me to Bill Gates. He was in Madrid not long ago and visited the Royal Spanish Academy, which has embarked upon a joint venture with Microsoft. Among other things, Gates assured the members of the Academy that he would personally guarantee that the letter “fl” would never be removed from computer software—a promise that allowed four hundred million Spanish speakers on five continents to breathe a sigh of relief, since the banishment of such an essential letter from cyberspace would have created monumental problems. Immediately after making his amiable concession to the Spanish language, however, Gates, before even leaving the premises of the Academy, avowed in a press conference that he expected to accomplish his highest goal before he died. That goal, he explained, is to put an end to paper and then to books.

In his judgment, books are anachronistic objects. Gates argued that computer screens are able to replace paper in all the functions that paper has heretofore assumed. He also insisted that, in addition to being less onerous, computers take up less space, and are more easily transportable; and also that the transmission of news and literature by these electronic media, instead of by newspapers and books, will have the ecological advantage of stopping the destruction of forests, a cataclysm that is a consequence of the paper industry. People will continue to read, Gates assured his listeners, but they will read on computer screens, and consequently there will be more chlorophyll in the environment.

I was not present at Gates’s little discourse; I learned these details from the press. Had I been there I would have booed Gates for proclaiming shamelessly his intention to send me and my colleagues, the writers of books, directly to the unemployment line. And I would have vigorously disputed his analysis. Can the screen really replace the book in all its aspects? I am not so certain. I am fully aware of the enormous revolution that new technologies such as the Internet have caused in the fields of communication and the sharing of information, and I confess that the Internet provides invaluable help to me every day in my work; but my gratitude for these extraordinary conveniences does not imply a belief that the electronic screen can replace paper, or that reading on a computer can stand in for literary reading. That is a chasm that I cannot cross. I cannot accept the idea that a non-functional or non-pragmatic act of reading, one that seeks neither information nor a useful and immediate communication, can integrate on a computer screen the dreams and the pleasures of words with the same sensation of intimacy, the same mental concentration and spiritual isolation, that may be achieved by the act of reading a book.

Perhaps this a prejudice resulting from lack of practice, and from a long association of literature with books and paper. But even though I enjoy surfing the Web in search of world news, I would never go to the screen to read a poem by Gongora or a novel by Onetti or an essay by Paz, because I am certain that the effect of such a reading would not be the same. I am convinced, although I cannot prove it, that with the disappearance of the book, literature would suffer a serious blow, even a mortal one. The term “literature” would not disappear, of course. Yet it would almost certainly be used to denote a type of text as distant from what we understand as literature today as soap operas are from the tragedies of Sophocles and Shakespeare.

There is still another reason to grant literature an important place in the life of nations. Without it, the critical mind, which is the real engine of historical change and the best protector of liberty, would suffer an irreparable loss. This is because all good literature is radical, and poses radical questions about the world in which we live. In all great literary texts, often without their authors’ intending it, a seditious inclination is present.

Literature says nothing to those human beings who are satisfied with their lot, who are content with life as they now live it. Literature is the food of the rebellious spirit, the promulgator of non-conformities, the refuge for those who have too much or too little in life. One seeks sanctuary in literature so as not to be unhappy and so as not to be incomplete. To ride alongside the scrawny Rocinante and the confused Knight on the fields of La Mancha, to sail the seas on the back of a whale with Captain Ahab, to drink arsenic with Emma Bovary, to become an insect with Gregor Samsa: these are all ways that we have invented to divest ourselves of the wrongs and the impositions of this unjust life, a life that forces us always to be the same person when we wish to be many different people, so as to satisfy the many desires that possess us.

Literature pacifies this vital dissatisfaction only momentarily—but in this miraculous instant, in this provisional suspension of life, literary illusion lifts and transports us outside of history, and we become citizens of a timeless land, and in this way immortal. We become more intense, richer, more complicated, happier, and more lucid than we are in the constrained routine of ordinary life. When we close the book and abandon literary fiction, we return to actual existence and compare it to the splendid land that we have just left. What a disappointment awaits us! Yet a tremendous realization also awaits us, namely, that the fantasized life of the novel is better—more beautiful and more diverse, more comprehensible and more perfect—than the life that we live while awake, a life conditioned by the limits and the tedium of our condition. In this way, good literature, genuine literature, is always subversive, unsubmissive, rebellious: a challenge to what exists.

How could we not feel cheated after reading War and Peace or Remembrance of Things Past and returning to our world of insignificant details, of boundaries and prohibitions that lie in wait everywhere and, with each step, corrupt our illusions? Even more than the need to sustain the continuity of culture and to enrich language, the greatest contribution of literature to human progress is perhaps to remind us (without intending to, in the majority of cases) that the world is badly made; and that those who pretend to the contrary, the powerful and the lucky, are lying; and that the word can be improved, and made more like the worlds that our imagination and our language are able to create. A free and democratic society must have responsible and critical citizens conscious of the need continuously to examine the word that we inhabit and to try, even though it is more and more an impossible task, to make it more closely resemble the world that we would like to inhabit. And there is no better means of fomenting dissatisfaction with existence than the reading of good literature; no better means of forming critical and independent citizens who will not be manipulated by those who govern them, and who are endowed with a permanent spiritual mobility and a vibrant imagination.

Still, to call literature seditious because it sensitizes a reader’s consciousness to the imperfections of the world does not mean—as churches and governments seem to think it means when they establish censorship—that literary texts will provoke immediate social upheavals or accelerate revolutions. The social and political effects of a poem, a play, or a novel cannot be foreseen, because they are not collectively made or collectively experienced. They are created by individuals and they are read by individuals, who vary enormously in the conclusions that they draw from their writing and their reading. For this reason, it is difficult, or even impossible, to establish precise patterns. Moreover, the social consequences of a work of literature may have little to do with its aesthetic quality. A mediocre novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe seems to have played a decisive role in raising social and political consciousness of the horrors of slavery in the United States. The fact that these effects of literature are difficult to identify does not imply that they do not exist. The important point is that they are effects brought about by the actions of citizens whose personalities have been formed in part by books.

Good literature, while temporarily relieving human dissatisfaction, actually increases it, by developing a critical and non-conformist attitude toward life. It might even be said that literature makes human beings more likely to be unhappy. To live dissatisfied, and at war with existence, is to seek things that may not be there, to condemn oneself to fight futile battles, like the battles that Colonel Aureliano Buendia fought in One Hundred Years of Solitude, knowing full well that he would lose them all. All this may be true. Yet it is also true that without rebellion against the mediocrity and the squalor of life, we would still live in a primitive state, and history would have stopped. The autonomous individual would not have been created, science and technology would not have progressed, human rights would not have been recognized, freedom would not have existed. All these things are born of unhappiness, of acts of defiance against a life perceived as insufficient or intolerable. For this spirit that scorns life as it is—and searches with the madness of Don Quixote, whose insanity derived from the reading of chivalric novels—literature has served as a great spur.

Let us attempt a fantastic historical reconstruction. Let us imagine a world without literature, a humanity that has not read poems or novels. In this kind of atrophied civilization, with its puny lexicon in which groans and ape-like gesticulations would prevail over words, certain adjectives would not exist. Those adjectives include: quixotic, Kafkaesque, Rabelaisian, Orwellian, sadistic, and masochistic, all terms of literary origin. To be sure, we would still have insane people, and victims of paranoia and persecution complexes, and people with uncommon appetites and outrageous excesses, and bipeds who enjoy inflicting or receiving pain. But we would not have learned to see, behind these extremes of behavior that are prohibited by the norms of our culture, essential characteristics of the human condition. We would not have discovered our own traits, as only the talents of Cervantes, Kafka, Rabelais, Orwell, de Sade, and Sacher-Masoch have revealed them to us.

When the novel Don Quixote de la Mancha appeared, its first readers made fun of this extravagant dreamer, as well as the rest of the characters in the novel. Today we know that the insistence of the caballero de la triste figura on seeing giants where there were windmills, and on acting in his seemingly absurd way, is really the highest form of generosity, and a means of protest against the misery of this world in the hope of changing it. Our very notions of the ideal, and of idealism, so redolent with a positive moral connotation, would not be what they are, would not be clear and respected values, had they not been incarnated in the protagonist of a novel through the persuasive force of Cervantes’s genius. The same can be said of that small and pragmatic female Quixote, Emma Bovary, who fought with ardor to live the splendid life of passion and luxury that she came to know through novels. Like a butterfly, she came too close to the flame and was burned in the fire.

The inventions of all great literary creators open our eyes to unknown aspects of our own condition. They enable us to explore and to understand more fully the common human abyss. When we say “Borgesian,” the word immediately conjures up the separation of our minds from the rational order of reality and the entry into a fantastic universe, a rigorous and elegant mental construction, almost always labyrinthine and arcane, and riddled with literary references and allusions, whose singularities are not foreign to us because in them we recognize hidden desires and intimate truths of our own personality that took shape only thanks to the literary creation of Jorge Luis Borges. The word “Kafkaesque” comes to mind, like the focus mechanism of those old cameras with their accordion arms, every time we feel threatened, as defenseless individuals, by the oppressive machines of power that have caused so much pain and injustice in the modern world—the authoritarian regimes, the vertical parties, the intolerant churches, the asphyxiating bureaucrats. Without the short stories and the novels of that tormented Jew from Prague who wrote in German and lived always on the lookout, we would not have been able to understand the impotent feeling of the isolated individual, or the terror of persecuted and discriminated minorities, confronted with the all-embracing powers that can smash them and eliminate them without the henchmen even showing their faces.

The adjective “Orwellian,” first cousin of “Kafkaesque,” gives a voice to the terrible anguish, the sensation of extreme absurdity, that was generated by totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth century, the most sophisticated, cruel, and absolute dictatorships in history, in their control of the actions and the psyches of the members of a society. In 1984, George Orwell described in cold and haunting shades a humanity subjugated to Big Brother, an absolute lord who, through an efficient combination of terror and technology, eliminated liberty, spontaneity, and equality, and transformed society into a beehive of automatons. In this nightmarish world, language also obeys power, and has been transformed into “newspeak;’ purified of all invention and all subjectivity, metamorphosed into a string of platitudes that ensure the individual’s slavery to the system. It is true that the sinister prophecy of 1984 did not come to pass, and totalitarian communism in the Soviet Union went the way of totalitarian fascism in Germany and elsewhere; and soon thereafter it began to deteriorate also in China, and in anachronistic Cuba and North Korea. But the danger is never completely dispelled, and the word “Orwellian” continues to describe the danger, and to help us to understand it.

So literature’s unrealities, literature’s lies, are also a precious vehicle for the knowledge of the most hidden of human realities. The truths that it reveals are not always flattering; and sometimes the image of ourselves that emerges in the mirror of novels and poems is the image of a monster. This happens when we read about the horrendous sexual butchery fantasized by de Sade, or the dark lacerations and brutal sacrifices that fill the cursed books of Sacher-Masoch and Bataille. At times the spectacle is so offensive and ferocious that it becomes irresistible. Yet the worst in these pages is not the blood, the humiliation, the abject love of torture; the worst is the discovery that this violence and this excess are not foreign to us, that they are a profound part of humanity. These monsters eager for transgression are hidden in the most intimate recesses of our being; and from the shadow where they live they seek a propitious occasion to manifest themselves, to impose the rule of unbridled desire that destroys rationality, community, and even existence. And it was not science that first ventured into these tenebrous places in the human mind, and discovered the destructive and the self-destructive potential that also shapes it. It was literature that made this discovery. A world without literature would be partly blind to these terrible depths, which we urgently need to see.

Uncivilized, barbarian, devoid of sensitivity and crude of speech, ignorant and instinctual, inept at passion and crude at love, this world without literature, this nightmare that I am delineating, would have as its principal traits conformism and the universal submission of humankind to power. In this sense, it would also be a purely animalistic world. Basic instincts would determine the daily practices of a life characterized by the struggle for survival, and the fear of the unknown, and the satisfaction of physical necessities. There would be no place for the spirit. In this world, moreover, the crushing monotony of living would be accompanied by the sinister shadow of pessimism, the feeling that human life is what it had to be and that it will always be thus, and that no one and nothing can change it.

When one imagines such a world, one is tempted to picture primitives in loincloths, the small magic-religious communities that live at the margins of modernity in Latin America, Oceania, and Africa. But I have a different failure in mind. The nightmare that I am warning about is the result not of under-development but of over-development. As a consequence of technology and our subservience to it, we may imagine a future society full of computer screens and speakers, and without books, or a society in which books—that is, works of literature—have become what alchemy became in the era of physics: an archaic curiosity, practiced in the catacombs of the media civilization by a neurotic minority. I am afraid that this cybernetic world, in spite of its prosperity and its power, its high standard of living and its scientific achievement would be profoundly uncivilized and utterly soulless—a resigned humanity of post-literary automatons who have abdicated freedom.

It is highly improbable, of course, that this macabre utopia will ever come about. The end of our story, the end of history, has not yet been written, and it is not pre-determined. What we will become depends entirely on our vision and our will. But if we wish to avoid the impoverishment of our imagination, and the disappearance of the precious dissatisfaction that refines our sensibility and teaches us to speak with eloquence and rigor, and the weakening of our freedom, then we must act. More precisely, we must read.