What Is The Purpose of Literature?


Under The Net by Iris Murdoch

The purpose of literature is to show that other people exist–Iris Murdoch

While I’ve been traveling recently I’ve had more uninterrupted reading time than in the previous two months. On cramped airplanes and in hotel rooms that would be lonely if I hadn’t had my Kindle with me.

The pendulum swung far and it swung wide. I read books 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 of George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.

I read Is Shakespeare Dead? by Mark Twain.

I read lots of Skymall magazine.

I read a lot.

I also happened to hear that quote by Iris Murdoch while I was in the thick of this binge. I looked at the books I had been reading and thought: “Is this true? Is this why literature is valuable? Do these books show that other people exist? What does that even mean?”

What do you make of it? Agree? Disagree?





11 thoughts on “What Is The Purpose of Literature?

  1. I don’t know if this is profound or over simple; nevertheless, I would contend that I read to know that *I* exist. But I think it does also help me to know that other people exist. Like *really* exist. Allow me to explain.

    As you know, Descartes gave us “cogito ergo sum” or “I think therefore I am.” If the Matrix series taught us anything, it’s that things are not always as they appear, and the world we think we see could well be (is) just an illusion.

    But books are not just proof that other people appear, like watching someone else walk down the street, get the paper, drink a cup of coffee, move a wisp of hair out of their face. In reading, one of my favorite experiences is to recognize a thought/experience described by someone else just as I myself have thought/experienced it before. It allows me to both think and reflect back on a thought I held previously. I feel very existent or existing in these moments.

    But if reading what other people write is really reading what other people think, or, put another way, observing THAT other people think, then you are observing that other people are (“cogitant ergo sunt” or “they think therefore they are”). So, in that sense, literature shows that other people exist, in a “thinking” sense. Still, is that its purpose?

    I don’t think I read to know that other people exist, I read to exist and to experience that existing. I recognize and appreciate that others exist, but I am reading because of how it makes me feel, not because of what it lets me know about them. Reading what they have written/thought observes, and even appreciates their existence, but its purpose is what it does for me, not what it shows of them.

    A similar argument could be made for writing. I write to show that I exist, not to show that others do.

    I guess your actual quote says the purpose of “literature,” which could encompass both reading and writing. I guess I mainly just question the perspective. The purpose of literature to/for me would have more to do with my existence. But if the perspective is all of us, all readers/writers as a whole, then the statement would hold true: the purpose of literature is to show that we all exist, to our collective plural selves, and each other.

    I don’t know if that means I agree, disagree, or am just confused. Probably some combination.

    • That’s right; and don’t any of you forget it (I thought that “cogitant ergo sunt” was actually pretty good; conjugated it myself).

      (To say nothing for the fact that it clearly also suggests that I took at least a semester of philosophy).

      I am getting both of these as quickly as I can, and reading them like the dickens!

      • I still remember that in my first couple of chapters in my Ancient Greek textbook I learned the words “the slave,” “the plow,” “the werewolf,” and “I’m on fire!”

  2. I came across this just yesterday: “To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all of the miseries of life.” W. Somerset Maugham

  3. I was going to turn this into its own “why do we read?” post, and may still create such a post, but the quote was:

    “There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.” — Bertrand Russell

    I think this is true. I can divide all my “to read” books into books that I am genuinely excited about reading and books I feel like I should be reading. There is virtually no crossover. There are more in the first group than there are in the second, and I am currently reading some of both. These days, the books from the first group get read and finished first, the others I put off perpetually, sometimes forever.

    It was a fine day when I realized I didn’t have to finish books I wasn’t enjoying, and didn’t have to start books I was not interested in at all.

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