World book day is April 23, the birthday of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. And yet we bibliophiles find the need for a day encouraging people to read almost incomprehensible. For what greater conceivable pleasure is known to man? To read is to soar through time and space, and to survey at will a limitless expanse of peoples and ideas. Books always respect the reader's own pace. Affordable and accessible to all, they offer an almost infinite variety of proven riches.


Of course books are nowhere as important as they used to be when they were the only long distance method of communicating ideas and information. The invention of television and the cinema has undoubtedly shifted our cultural emphasis from the word to the image. Some even argue that the electronic information age has made the printed word irrelevant.


Yet books remain the most efficient way of transmitting and absorbing detailed knowledge on any subject. ”Well read” remains a complement. “Well watched” never will be. Reading can make one wiser. The same cannot be said for watching television or movies. No idea can be properly argued without being written down. Even those telling us books are dying have found no better way to do so than in writing.


Computers may allow printed messages to span the planet in seconds, but they do not alter the essential reading experience. What we read remains far more important than how we read it. The internet largely confirms the old GIGO maxim – garbage in garbage out. Never has so much information been so easily available to so many. But our computer age is so inundated with incoherent ephemera that it sometimes seems not so much better informed as more confused. “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” asked T.S. Eliot in 1934, a question more relevant than ever today.


Only the written word allows in-depth examination, critical analysis, and reflective comparison. All higher religions are based on written texts – “people of the book” Mohamed called those whose beliefs he considered worthy of respect. And the most profound, transforming and lasting works of art are those of literature. The history of western figurative art really begins with Giotto in the 14th century. And western music as we know it only goes back to Palestrina in the 1500s. But the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first known work of literature, is over 4,000 years old.


Some say greatness, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. Yet certain works of fiction have received the universal seal of approval of all following generations and constitute in essence the basic documents of the western imagination. The shortest incontestable list would include Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Aeschylus’s Orestia, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Euripides’ Bacchae, Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and King Lear, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.


(As one educated in the western tradition I must admit here my cultural limitations and confess an almost total ignorance of non-western literature.)


In our age of endless distractions, many know these only by reputation. “A classic is a book everyone wants to have read but which no one wants to read” quipped Mark Twain, and this was before radio or the cinema were invented. It is much easier to watch television than read a book. And much easier to read say Stephen King than Tolstoy. Every book demands something from the reader, and true classics unavoidably require a great deal of time and much concentration of thought. So why do people still read them?


Probably because they have gotten tired of everything else. The psychologist Maslow argued that we all have a hierarchy of physical and emotional needs – physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. We surely also have a hierarchy of mental needs, for as man grows older he demands more intellectual stimulation. What pleases children bores teenagers. What pleases teenagers bores adults. As St. Paul said “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things”.


It is this unquenchable thirst for intellectual satisfaction that eventually leads many to works they once considered too difficult and time consuming to be worth the trouble. For great books represent the highest peaks of man’s imagination. They are a record of what the finest minds have thought and written on the human condition. All true literature tries to explain what it means to be a rational, conscious, feeling being. "Man is a mystery which must be unraveled and if it takes a whole lifetime, don’t say it’s a waste of time” wrote Dostoyevsky.


As Hamlet declares


“What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. Sure he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability and godlike reason to fust in us unus’d.”


Mere man will never know all the answers to the riddle of existence, but the greatest books elucidate unforgettably our most profound longings and fears. There may be no practical definition of great literature, but posterity recognizes it when it sees it. Art in one sense is entertainment that lasts. But great art does more than just entertain. Genuine literature illuminates the human dilemma and leaves its audience feeling spiritually enriched. We are not the same after reading great books, for they compel us to become better readers of ourselves and to ponder anew our own motivations and dreams.


Some say literature is dead, having been killed by the cinema and television. And in sheer ubiquity they have certainly displaced books as the main outlet for the imagination. Certainly movies can create more vivid images than any book, for seeing something is always more compelling that hearing it described. Yet though utterly convincing when depicting action, movies are not very good at entering our heads and describing our innermost thoughts. And their relentless activity leaves little room for the contemplation of feelings and ideas. Citizen Kane and The Godfather are arguably the best movies ever made. But as testaments of the human experience they pale almost into insignificance beside Don Quixote or The Brothers Karamazov. Books will always remain as essential to the educated mind as food is to the belly. Literature can no more die than man can stop seeking better bread than is made of wheat.


Comments (0)

Post a Comment
* Your Name:
* Your Email:
(not publicly displayed)
Reply Notification:
Approval Notification:
* Security Image:
Security Image Generate new
Copy the numbers and letters from the security image:
* Message: