Literature has always been important, is still important and will continue to be important for as long as human beings have a speech centre in their brain. And were an errant blood vessel to flood this important area of the command centre of the human body, we might survive as living organisms but our life would be immensely impoverished for there isn’t a sadder sight than that of a human being who can no longer communicate -or commune- with fellow human beings. Because literature is all about communion, memory, beauty, need, desire, feelings, conviviality and expression, most importantly expression. As a species we call ourselves homo sapiens, the human who knows, but we might as well call ourselves homo affabilis , the human who communicates. In other words, we are chatterboxes who, for the sake of expediency and a larger audience, invented writing which then morphed into literature.
The Bible, one of the most-often published and translated books in recent millennia and more, got it right when it pronounced: In the beginning was the word. Those who are a product of the Judeo-Christian tradition might take all its pronouncements as a literal or metaphorical explanation of life on earth and beyond, or not. That is their privilege. However, simple lovers of literature recognize that its endurance is due to its ability to capture our imagination and to understand the trials and tribulations of a wandering people who lived long ago and far away. And if we don’t quite agree with what it has to say, we can always turn to another magnificent piece of literature called the Koran which also calls for empathy and love for our fellow human beings. And yet again, if we can’t read from right to left, and like our letters to hang down from the line instead of being perched on top of it, we can always light an oil lamp in front of an image of Lord Ganesh hoping that he grants us the gift of imagination. After all, Ganesh, besides presiding over weddings and other auspicious (or potentially difficult!) endeavors, is the most prolific author of them all. It is said that he wrote the whole of the Mahabharata, the great epic of the Bharat dynasty that ruled India in a distant past. Some refine this tidbit of information by explaining that Vyasa, a great Sanskrit poet, was the true author of the Mahabharata and that Lord Ganesh merely took down his dictation. Closest to the truth is the version that states that this epic poem, the longest in the world with its 90,000 verses, was really an accretion of accounts written across generations. Its structure is that of a story within a story, one of the most complex -and satisfying- literary genres. Be it as it may, every time I turn my computer on, a jovial bronze Ganesh holding the tip of his broken tusk in his right hand and scribbling away on a book in his left hand stares at me from the screen daring me to do likewise.
There are other examples of great literature from other continents. The Odyssey and the Iliad tell the story of gods who mingled with humans and warriors who went on long voyages leaving their wives behind busy at a loom. The Popol Vuh explains to the Mayan people from the Yucatan Peninsula how the world was created. The Kalevala, an epic poem of the Finnish people, actually inspired them to become independent from the Russian empire and establish modern Finland. The Altjeringa or Australian Aboriginal Dreamings, map out the path Aboriginals must take in their long journeys across the continent and the griots or story-tellers from Africa keep the culture alive. Literature is the vessel that contains the immense story of humanity across time and space.
Modern society has the internet, that network of electronic highways, by-ways and lanes that move the word around with electronic alacrity. The down side is that it is giving rise to another form of literature that is concentrating memory in virtual spaces away from physical supports like stone, parchment and paper and most importantly, debilitating the synaptic resiliency of the human mind. But it has brought about other advantages. The internet revolution has actually made it possible for lovers of literature to immediately disseminate the work of and rally around the cause of writers who are threatened by their governments because the latter feel threatened by them. This proves that the pen -read literature- continues to be mightier than the sword. Writer Vaclav Havel, who as last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic led his country through a difficult transition without shedding blood, validated this saying. Literature was also a life-saver for Shehrazade who survived thanks to her ability to tell a thousand and one enthralling tales.
It is difficult for a writer to get started but once on a roll, it is difficult to know when to stop. One can go on and on about the importance of reading and writing since writers have examined their profession more intensely than any other professional group. So I will arbitrarily stop here with a quote from Canadian author Yann Martel. When interviewed about his obstinacy in sending Canadian Prime Minister Harper a novel every two weeks for two years in the hope of eliciting a reaction, he explained that he would have liked to know what Harper read, because he would hate to have a leader whose bedside book is Mein Kampf. Know your enemy by the friends he keeps and the books he reads! He also suggested that the importance of literature resides in its ability to open doors and make us more empathetic. “You read a story about a boy soldier in Afghanistan and it opens your heart, even if you’ve never been to Afghanistan”.
Ergo, literature is still important because the hard times we live in require that we open our hearts, and open them wide.