What is literature?

Understanding what literature is, has always been a challenge and pinning down a definition has proven to be quite difficult task. Here is one definition of what literature is.

Literature is a term used to describe written or spoken material. Broadly speaking, “literature” is used to describe anything from creative writing to more technical or scientific works, but the term is most commonly used to refer to works of the creative imagination, including works of poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction.

Although the above definition is framed lexically with a criterial approach, I feel that literature is beyond that definition, it is more than what we see and perceive. Its boundaries cross our lives, our traditions, culture, social relations, national unity and a lot more. In this article I would like to throw light on why literature is important in our lives and emphasize on its undiscovered effects on the moral behavior of human beings. One definition of literature which I like is as below.

“Literature is a canon which consists of those works in language by which a community defines itself through the course of its history. It includes works primarily artistic and also those whose aesthetic qualities are only secondary. The self-defining activity of the community is conducted in the light of the works as its members have come to read them or concretize them.”

What sense does literature makes in the contemporary world?

In this rapidly globalizing world, the community of readers and writers has discovered a whole new concept of ‘World Literature’, which although originated in 1820s, has gained pretty good significance only in the contemporary times. This idea of ‘world literature’ unfolds and redefines every classic text in a fashion that touches human feelings and emotions which are common everywhere surpassing the barriers of race, religion, region or ethnicity etc. It dissolves the regional or the religious framework of the text and escalates what emotions and dilemmas, a character has subject to. In other words, what Goethe has written in German in late 18th century may have its reflections in 21st century in India. Or what Rabindranath Tagore has written in the early 20th century in India might have its reflections in 21st century in Iran.

As far as the present argument is concerned, I would like to confine the domain of Indian context and argue upon what sense does world literature makes in our lives.
In the past 10 years, Indian economy has undergone drastic reforms and has set a stupendous pace of 8% GDP to itself, which gave a surge to the demand of skilled human resources in the area of science & technology. This is a very positive growth which has lessened the unemployment and is expected to wipe away poverty in the coming decades. This is also a growth of demand for scientific knowledge in the student community who seek to pursue their career in the fast growing industrial sectors like IT, software, engineering and management. As a result of which today’s life has become an unending pursuit of technical knowledge and applied skill. Students are asked to take extra hours in reading Physics and Mathematics. It’s a very well known fact that this passion to enter the field of science and technology has percolated down to the high school level, and of course there are institutions in our country which provide engineering or medicine oriented academic programs at the school level itself.

At this juncture an important question of what sense does English or regional language novel makes for a student has risen not only in the minds of teaching community but also among the parents and students. The question of why one has to read an English story when he/she is in 12th standard preparing for an entrance examination, or why an engineering or science student has to read English literature even after learning a lot of English grammar at high school level is the crux of our argument. What sense does classic novel makes in our lives? If we can learn Grammar through some relevant books there is practically no need of reading a story, then why do we need to have stories as a part of our curriculum when we don’t have any use of it? Why do I need to read of Kafka or Leo Tolstoy when I am a Project Manager in a software company; how does that be useful to me or my profession?

Or even if we are jobless, some of us find it a difficult task to take out a book and read through it, we would rather prefer to watch a movie or leisurely pass away time. Some of us really might have read through some books, but I assure, both of them have still enough reason to read through the rest of the article and digest this very little piece of text. I do not ask anyone to forgo movies or your favourite pastime and make book reading a daily ritual. But I would like to convey how important it is for us, and what kind of book makes difference.


Bill Clinton always uses a line that says: “Children can’t be expected to live a life they can’t imagine.”

Tim Gillespie in one of his essays to ‘The English Journal’ says, “We rightly worry that many youngsters lives are circumscribed by poverty, discrimination, low expectations, cultural insularity, and other conditions that may render them unable to see beyond the limits of their immediate horizons. Literature does offer-inexpensively-a vision of other lives and other vistas. One of its potential benefits is to enlarge a reader’s sense about the many possible ways to live. This enlarged sense seems to me an important part of our traditional national ethos. Hope for a better world and belief in the possibility of re-making oneself or improving one’s situation breed optimism and elbow grease. We have rich testimony of this imaginative function of literature. ”
The ability of literature to provoke its reader to imagine is generalized in the above sentences. What I mean to say is that literature of any kind has a generalized power to make the reader imagine things. Of course, Tim throws more light on living life in various ways and imagining situations that one cannot experience but literature of any kind, whether a science textbook or a novel makes the reader to imagine. This power of imagination deepens the intellectual quotient of a person.

Empathy or the Emotional Quotient

Empathy, which literally translates as in feeling, is the capability to share another being’s emotions and feelings.
Emotional quotient is the ability, capacity, skill, to identify, assess, and manage the emotions of one’s self, of others, and of groups.
Daniel Goleman identified the five ‘domains’ of EQ as:
1.Knowing your emotions.
2.Managing your own emotions.
3.Motivating yourself.
4.Recognising and understanding other people’s emotions.
5.Managing relationships, ie., managing the emotions of others.

Apart from emotional quotient man is also equipped with Intelligence quotient and spiritual quotient. As per the present discussion, it is important for us to improve both our emotional and spiritual quotients on par with the intelligence quotients. One has to understand that all the above three, put together, can only make an excellent human being. And to emphasize more on emotional quotient is that it makes one understand how the others might get affected by his/her acts directly or indirectly, which is the most important quality that will spring the sense of social responsibility in everyone.
To explain with a better example, let us understand why should one read about Anne Frank or Lakshmi Kaur? How a book works on the mind of a reader is, that it virtually reconstructs every scene of the story or autobiography around him; and this depends on the level of imagination of the reader. After which, the characters and dilemmas of the story or novel, impinges on the reader more powerful than imagination. When one is reading about Anne Frank, one should be able to get under the skin of her and look at the world through her eyes, and experience the discrimination she was subject to, the agony and pain which she felt, and the reason why she had to, and the justification, that just because she was a Jew, should she die? One should be able to feel the suffering of the soul of Anne Frank reflecting in her words. One should be able to judge, and assimilate the conception of Nazis or someone else responsible for the event being unfolded by the book. That widens one’s moral horizons, not only to the extent of Anne Frank but in our everyday life. It is when we start thinking about the other person our emotional quotient comes into play. One should develop empathy to be a rational and more humanistic in nature. And as you keep reading more and more books each book has a plenty of characters of and plenty of dilemmas and each book exposes you to them in its own fashion. Thereby, one can get experiences of different complex situations, one might face in his/her life without actually experiencing them, and when such a situation actually comes, the experience nurtured by the book in your mind enhances your ability to handle the situation in matured way.

I would like to end this article with a word of caution, that every book necessarily does not make such an impression. Just like movies, even some books are also commercial in nature, solely made to entertain the reader make the book a bestseller. One simple way to make a judgment about the healthiness of a book is, if you find at least one leaf of the book reflecting your life or your relations, or at least if it makes you think that why such a scene has happened, leaving a lasting impression on the consequences of the scene, then that book had something in store for you!