Humanity hasn't always learned from the mistakes of the past but it certainly will have to if it hopes to achieve a better future. Few things inform the evolution of society as much as the past, as in it are not only gleaming examples of triumphs, but also spectacular failures. Much of what we can learn from the past has been documented over the years in literature, as passing down stories was a way of shedding light on the past far before we had encyclopedias and the ability to search through the annals of the internet. If you’re attending an alternative liberal arts college, the importance of literature doesn’t really have to be stressed to you, and yet there is so much more that it can teach us than we may think.
Implying and Alluding
Part of what makes literature such an impactful way of informing us about the future is that it’s not straight-ahead – literature doesn’t come right out and say what’s going on, it implies things. The result of this is that we form our own interpretations and come to our own conclusions about what’s being implied, and what that means. Whether it’s the dystopian future of 1984 or the implications of technological innovation in Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the narrative informs our views of the future, and helps us understand what we think and feel.
Instead of being told what to take away from it, you work out your own interpretation, which informs how you approach things afterwards. Subtlety is much more effective than trying to hammer a point home. A book becomes a symbol for something we believe in, rather than that belief itself. There has been much investigation into the role of literature as compared to dreams, as both reveal insights in ambiguous ways, allowing us to come to our own conclusions about what we feel.
Understanding the Moment
One of the things that literature we read in a liberal arts college setting does best is give us an idea of the moment it was written in – a sort of time capsule of an era, and the accompanying culture and prevailing attitudes. By identifying aspects of the writing that speak to the cultural zeitgeist of the time, we can then identify it in the modern literature around us. It provides a window into the cultural climate of our times, such as the suburban ennui of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, or the endless bureaucratic nightmare of David Foster-Wallace’s unfinished Pale King. When we pay attention to the setting, communication norms and subtext of good literature, we are better able to gauge what’s going on in the collective consciousness.
In this age of tiny attention spans and instant gratification, literature is one of the forces that still challenges us and forces us to grapple with our imagination, something that’s highly encouraged for anyone pursuing a liberal arts degree. Literature helps us make sense of the world around us, and in that way, it helps to define the world.