A literary text is a door into someone else’s consciousness, an opportunity to see the world, at least temporarily, from a new center, to see life as it might appear, say, to a fourteenth-century English bureaucrat like Geoffrey Chaucer, an eighteenth-century Irish cleric like Jonathan Swift, or a twentieth-century American expatriate like Sylvia Plath; in short an opportunity to see human experience from a perspective other than our own. In a sense all literary works are an attempt to answer the question: what would it be like to be someone else, somewhere else, or some time else.
But what is the value of such an experience. What is the point of sharing the experience of someone I could never become and might never wish to become? There are several possible answers to that question. The first was vigorously put forward by Ernest L. Boyer and Martin Kaplan in a recent article entitled "Educating for Survival”. The very survival of our civilization, they claimed, depends in large measure on the capacity of its educational system to make us aware of the common bonds that unite us, the shared values and experiences which are the cement of any true community. To the extent that literature directs our attention to the fundamental human experiences, thoughts, and feelings which transcend the social, ethnic and religious differences that divide us, it is strengthening the essential fabric of our society.
The second answer, on the other hand, maintains that literature has as much to teach us about what distinguishes one human being, one society or one age from another as it does about what they have in common. What it has to offer, according to this second view, is not only the experience of sameness but also the experience of otherness, of seeing with other eyes, feeling with other hearts as well as with our own.
In the incredibly complex and diverse society that we call America, this kind of imaginative entrance into the experience of other men and women is especially important and especially rewarding. Enriched as it is by the cultures of Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, American society depends, perhaps to a greater extent than any other, on the ability of its members to recognize and respect difference, to understand our fellow men and women on their terms as well as on ours.
What the study of literature has to teach us, then, is a recognition and acceptance of the other as other, not as a mere reflection or extension of ourselves. "By learning to know that other life," the British scholar John Carey has written, "we both escape from and enlarge our own identities; we grow, as selves, because other selves flow into us, and add their strengths and weaknesses, their ways of knowing and not knowing, to our own."
It is this that constitutes the unique value of literature as distinct from other forms of discourse, for unlike history and philosophy, literature deals not merely in facts or ideas but in the human response to them; it can allow us to know not merely what the men and women of other times and places believed and did but what it felt like to believe and do those things. Other forms of writing--newspaper articles, instructional manuals, history books and so on--are designed to convey information. But what literature has to offer us is a series of living human experiences made articulate.
The third answer to the question posed above has to do with another significant difference between literature and other forms of discourse, namely the fact that works of literature are aesthetic as well as rational objects. As a result, great works of literature not only offer us understanding, they offer us profound aesthetic pleasure as well. As the modern poet Robert Frost put it, literature "begins in delight and ends in wisdom." Living as we do in a culture that is still in many important respects puritanical, we tend to be a little shy about talking too loudly about delight - and the mere fact that literature is a university subject with its own apparatus of requirements, prerequisites, units, and so on reinforces this reluctance. But it needs to be said loudly and said often that reading great literature is and should be an immensely enjoyable experience. So long as we continue to take pleasure in beauty, so long as the eloquent patterns and play of language, rhythm, and narrative structure have the power to please us, the reading of literature will continue to be one of the richest and most enduring delights life has to offer us.