Literature matters. Period. I know what you are thinking. Come on. This is the 21st century, the land of iPads and iPhones. Yes, yes. I can carry an entire library around in my pocket. I am aware. And still I say: Literature matters. Even now. More than ever. Here’s why.
Book Nine: “The Odyssey.” Homer has taken Odysseus, the crafty hero, on a 20-year voyage. Already he had won the war with Troy through his cunning stratagem of the Trojan horse. The war with Troy had dragged on for 10 miserable years and eaten up the greatest heroes from both sides: Hector and Achilles. Even the gods are fighting among themselves. Odysseus ends the endless war not with a new weapon, or a military tactic. He ends it by using his head.
Later, Homer puts powerful the words in Achilles’ mouth when he is visited by Odysseus in the land of the dead. He tells Odysseus that it is better to be alive and an unknown farmer than be a heroic prince among the dead. Achilles rejects the warrior ethic even though he is the epitome of it. Food for thought still in the 21st century.
Now let’s turn the page to 1846. The place, Concord, Mass. Henry David Thoreau takes a walk into town to pick up a pair of shoes he was having repaired. His friend Sam Staples is the town sheriff. He is also the tax collector. Thoreau hasn’t paid his poll tax because he is taking a stand against slavery. Staples offers to lend Thoreau the money to pay the bill, but he demurs and spends the night in jail. After he was bailed out, he put aside his book in progress (“Walden”) and wrote “Civil Disobedience.” It is a serious discussion on the role of government in a citizen’s life. Further, it tackles the thorny question of how Americans should deal with immoral laws. His essay inspired people like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, and they stood up against unjust laws. “Civil Disobedience” reminds us all that America is truly a revolutionary society, tracing its roots back to Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers.
Finally, I turn to the great poet, Mary Oliver. She lives on Cape Cod and has been documenting sunrises and early morning walks since the 1960s. She celebrates picking wild blackberries with “ripped arms,” describes the magic of mist rising from a pond and considers what the world looks like from a frog’s point of view. Read Oliver and you will understand what Walt Whitman meant when he proclaimed, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Oliver enlarges our humanity.
I know I have only scratched the surface here. I couldn’t live without a regular return to Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, or a summer saunter with Ma Joad, who will remind us again and again that this is the land of plain folks: hard-working, generous and loving in the face of disasters. Then there is the vision of 19-year-old Mary Shelley, who gave us “Frankenstein” and a terrifying glimpse of the dangerous power of technology.
I know I started this essay with a short sentence ending with a period. I was wrong. It should have been a comma. Literature is never complete. The sentence that defines it never ends. That’s because the reader of literature, whether it was written 5,000 years ago or last week, will carry away the accumulated wisdom of humanity. And more than that. The careful reader contributes to that wisdom by participating in the unending dialogue of ideas.